Australian Treasury CIO inspired by Atari

The chief information officer for Australia's Department of Treasury, Peter Alexander, has admitted that his love of IT stemmed from playing Atari as a child.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Treasury CIO Peter Alexander's interest in IT spawned from video games, but IT's ability to make life easier has made it a career.

Alexander has been the Treasury CIO since June 2011, moving across from the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) after the department's former CIO Alaine King stepped down to become the general manager of Medicare Applications with Medicare Australia.

The role of CIO came after a number of IT roles, including seven years in the online service management branch in AGIMO. Alexander didn't start off in IT, though he said that he has always had an interest in the field.

"As a kid, I remember fondly my Atari 2600 video games, that I think I always wondered how they were made and what they did. How clever people took what, at the time, was really sophisticated things and put them on the TV," he said.

Alexander studied accounting at the University of Canberra, and then landed a job that involved financial accounting with a component of system work.

"One thing led to another, and I was pretty lucky to move into IT after that. More and more as my career progressed, my interest has really been about IT being more than just about technology, it's about everything we do," he said.

Getting a job in the government wasn't just about having a good place to work, but also using government IT to help people.

"You can just see the genuine benefit and improvement you can make in people's lives," he said.

In his 20 months as the Treasury CIO, Alexander has already overseen some major projects within the department. The Department of Treasury has just completed an upgrade of its network, offering 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) to each of the 1,100 Windows 7 desktops in the department, with a 100Gbps backbone.

"That's enabled us to do the second biggest thing we've done, which is using IP technology a lot better. We've now got voice over IP telephones, which we've had for the past 12 months," he said.

The department has also put in an IP TV network, allowing the use of multicast to deliver video broadcasts to any TV or PC within the department.

"We had a few little teething issues, but we now have an IP TV network. We've got great things now where, when Senate Estimates is on, all the public servants in our department can [watch it] on their desktop; instead of using our internet connection, they can use IP TV," he said.

Staffers can now watch the department being grilled by senators over the IP TV, rather than putting a strain on the internet connection, as had happened in the past, Alexander said. It also allows for recording broadcast TV.

"We can record television, so for example if the treasurer is on the 7:30 Report, we can record that and make it available for staff," he said.

One of the other big projects just completed was the implementation of disaster recovery. The Department of Treasury has a datacentre in its offices near parliament, and previously had what Alexander describes as a "slightly warm" disaster recovery arrangement with a single backup rack in a datacentre in Belconnen, ACT.

"We couldn't get back to full capacity; we could only have limited staff working on it," he said.

At the start of this year, the department finished a project with Hitachi Data Systems, so now there is full redundancy between the two datacentres with an active/active arrangement in place — so if the Department of Treasury ever goes down, the second datacentre is up and running.

In the lead up to the Budget in May, the Department of Treasury was previously unable to patch its systems for up to eight weeks, he said, because they became mission critical to the government during that time. Now, with the second datacentre up and running, this is no longer a concern.

"It's not really an issue, because run off the [second datacentre] and have Treasury patched, and then run off Treasury and have our [second datacentre] equipment running. So it's a really nice system for us," he said.

In addition to moving from offering staff members BlackBerrys to offering Apple devices, the Department of Treasury is now assessing whether to move to Windows 8 from Windows 7, and whether to virtualise the desktops within the department. This could be the start of a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, Alexander said, but the Department of Treasury still has to nail the specifics down.

"We know we have to find a BYOD solution. We're looking at a few at the moment," he said. "The threshold issue for us is where the data is stored. So if you're just getting a view of it at the back end that doesn't store any data on the device, that's workable.

"But if data is stored on the device, you have to have the device hardened and have extra conditions applied to it in order for it to be a work device."

The Department of Treasury will see a complete rollout of SharePoint internally by the end of the year, Alexander said, to make collaboration much easier within the department.

"We've had it in Treasury for a while, but we're rolling it out more fully to replace their share drives, and a full implementation in its purest sense so it is a document collaboration and sharing tool," he said. "We're not using it for websites. We're using it for what we think it is purely meant to do."

SharePoint will also be used for record keeping.

"We're also looking to use that as our record-keeping product. It basically makes record keeping invisible to users through the various types of meta data they create," he said. "This integrates nicely, and makes our staff's lives easier."

Alexander said his role is increasingly to do more with data processing and management, with the rollout of the bespoke data analytics platform Odysseus.

"It's about making the most out of the data we have and getting great value out of it," he said. "It's not rocket science, but it is nice and important work."

Alexander said the role of the CIO is evolving from one that dealt purely with the technology to one who is increasingly focused on how data is handled within an organisation.

"The information part, and information-management side of the CIO role, is becoming much more important. So much of the technology operation has become commodity. Either we can supply as government, or we can buy from someone," he said.

"Information management flows and processes are becoming much more important," he said.

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