Intel CIO: 'Wireless is magical'

newsmaker Businesses are still only "scratching the surface" with what they can do with wireless technology, and the future will be one where un-networked devices are unusual, says John Johnson.
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

newsmaker CIO John N Johnson oversees an IT department of more than 5,500 staff in over 50 countries who support some 80,000 employees across the company--and all of them working for one of the biggest technology companies in the world, Intel.

Johnson originally arrived at the chip giant in 1981 and joined the IT department in 1999 before becoming CIO in 2005. His team is responsible for developing enterprise applications used across all of Intel's departments as well as running the company's data and voice networks and data center operations.

In an interview, Johnson shared with ZDNet Asia's sister site Silicon.com, about the company's big projects, the magic of wireless and Gen Y.

Q: What have been the major projects that you've overseen since becoming CIO?
Johnson: In 2006 and 2007 Intel itself went through a pretty detailed and in-depth examination of how we operate and really driving efficiency into the company. I think we were fortunate that we chose to do that then because it's really helped us going into the current economic environment.

For IT specifically, we went through quite a right-sizing and re-shaping as well as a number of efficiency activities we're still actually working on. So we reduced headcount by a substantial amount, we reduced capital spending, we launched a long-term data center efficiency program, we launched a re-engineering of our ERP which we're quite a way through.

What has the data center consolidation and virtualization work involved?
We went from 125 or 130 data centers down to around 75 over the last three years, [and] we have consolidated down to a couple of enterprise data centers, so our enterprise applications are now consolidated into two centers. We have factory, manufacturing data centers that are typically with each factory as a dedicated data center and you probably don't want to change that model.

The rest of the data centers we have are in support of our design and engineering space. In that area we have been very aggressive with virtualization capabilities--it's a cloud computing model that's quite sophisticated that supports the design community.

I think in 2007 we stripped out 2,000 servers and something like US$7 million in savings by removing those 2,000 servers and retiring them, consolidating applications onto other servers, that sort of thing. It's a slow process but it's a steady process that you can really push down your operating costs down with.

What else is taking up your time?
The ERP re-platform effort continues to be our core applications effort. We're also starting to...do some foundational work to be able to drive a much lower-cost supply chain. As we get [the ERP program] wrapped up, we can start to really look how can we work with our manufacturing and business side and really drive a less expensive supply chain model, so that's important.

There's also a PC refresh effort under way. We're really trying to stick with about a three-and-a-half-year refresh rate on our mobile clients so we're pushing that through. We looked at it and said, well, economically it's really a challenging time, but we decided we needed to go in and make that investment, principally because of the productivity value it has for the employees. People with the older PCs really benefit when we're able to get a newer machine in front of them. So we're pushing that.

What about collaboration and social networking?
We're starting to really drive a little bit more investment in collaboration--videoconferencing, both high-end as well as PC-based videoconferencing. That helps employees interact without having to jump on an airplane as much as they have in the past.

There's also some investment in social networking capabilities that provide more collaboration capabilities for employees. We're trying to enable folks to be able to still get their work done in the way they want to but work with less travel.

[Social networking is] still kind of a nascent effort for us. The discussions with employees around the company are that they see value for the business side from these consumer-based capabilities. We're still trying to understand what's the right strategy in this space but we see a lot of interest.

Blogging at Intel is pretty prominent--even our CEO Paul Otellini blogs occasionally--which is interesting. It's a way to discuss issues and send messages out and work through things. We do Webjams on occasion in different parts of the company.

So things that you see on the consumer side, you look at it and go 'boy, there's business applicability there that we can take advantage of'.

Is this a result of Generation Y workers coming into the company?
I think without a doubt the millennials and Gen Ys are much more comfortable with social networking as an example. But I think on the other hand, we're a technology company and we have a lot of people that love technology. We get interest from all the different groups but I do think that there's a higher degree of comfort especially from the Gen Ys that are part of our mix.

What we try to do is listen to them and go experiment and what it does is it leads to an environment that really supports collaboration. We've got people talking to each other, interacting, sharing ideas and issues and it gives us the ability I think to get our work done a little bit better.

In my conversations with other CIOs there are IT shops trying to be efficient--consolidate data centers, reduce capital spending where you can--but I think IT can also play a role in helping the business side to be more efficient by good use of technology.

There are kind of two perspectives: there's how can the IT group be more efficient in itself but [also] how can the IT group also help the business be more efficient--and it's typically the application of technology.

What challenges are you facing as CIO?
Right now I think the challenge is to make sure that we execute on the programs that we've got. We've got to deliver on our core programs to our schedules. If you were an employee asking me that question in IT I'd say well, first of all we've got to make sure we keep Intel running and that's absolutely fundamental. So every CIO, IT organization [is] really the central nervous system of the company. You've got to keep that company running. So you've got to really pay attention to your operating infrastructure, make sure it's up to date on its information security protocols and all those things and keep that environment running.

And secondly we make investments, we drive programs, that are intended to drive business value with the businesses and we've got to make sure that we execute on those programs and the business groups get that business value so that as we go through this economic cycle, we come out of it stronger.

What role does the IT department play in the development of Intel technologies?
We really like to work with our product side and help in ways that we can. We participate in the design activities, the early design phases--we will actually sit down and participate in those kinds of discussions. But we also like to participate in the early prototyping and application applicability on the business side.

I think we've got something like 200 WiMax activities under way in IT with the business as an example. We've done a lot of lab testing [with WiMax] but also application testing in different places around the world. We're actually using WiMax in a number of places to support connectivity between facilities or between employees in their work area.

I [also] think a whole new world has opened up [with mobile devices] in terms of what IT can do to help to support the business--the traditional things like your e-mail access or getting Internet access and all that stuff. I've seen IT shops that actually have application groups focused specifically on handheld mobile device applications that allow or create ERP connectivity and other applications into the handheld. And we've done some of this--where we've got a technician that needs a bit of information as they work on one of our factory machines can pull it up on a handheld. That means they don't have to get out of their bunny suit and go find it, they can just do right there while they're working on the machine.

What do you think is the most exciting emerging technology?
Wireless is magical--it really is. Taking our business hats off for a minute, if we think about what you can do today versus what you could do five or ten years ago, we're still kind of sort of scratching the surface with what we can do with wireless technology. And when I say scratching the surface, I really mean that--I think there's just so much more that could be done over time with mobile devices--managing your presence, getting information to you when you need it [and so on].

I actually think that in time, anything that has a computing engine in it will also have wireless connectivity built into it--it will be unusual for a device not to be connectable to the network. And just imagine everything you use or own being networkable--your car connecting into your home network, when you pull into the driveway perhaps, it gets an update from the manufacturer that downloads some music to it--all that stuff.

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