The best CTOs of 2010

A major recession didn't stop these technology leaders from upping the ante on their technology or using it to survive tough times

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Using smart meters to lower energy costs for credit-challenged users

John Burke
CIO, Ambit Energy

When digital smart meters were installed in residential homes in Texas, CIO John Burke and Ambit Energy's leadership team saw an opportunity to revolutionize an industry that has seen little change in the last century. Traditional postpaid billing for electricity often requires a large deposit for customers who have poor credit scores or no credit history. For a prepaid option, consumers are charged high rates to offset the high risk of exceeding their prepayment. The new smart meters send retail electric providers meter reads in 15-minute intervals once a day rather than the traditional 30-day intervals.

Therein, Burke saw an opportunity in January 2010 to build and deploy a prepaid electricity billing and messaging system that offers consumers a lower cost than traditional prepaid electricity plans. Three months later, the new prepaid system became the first of its kind to market in Texas.

While building a new system is daunting for many companies, Burke previously constructed Ambit Energy's billing systems from the ground up, making them smart-meter-ready before smart meters were distributed. In addition to supporting the prepaid business, the system was developed to process gigabits of usage data while simultaneously linking all customer information. This enables customers to manage their electricity over the Internet quickly and easily. The client-facing Web platform offers call center support screens and a SMS system with real-time notification of usage balances; it also integrates with real-time processing for cash payment centers to better assist with prepaid client needs.

Bringing SSDs into the core of the data center

Chad Burney
Assistant Vice President for IT, COCC

Chad Burney spearheaded a project to implement SSD (solid-state disk) technology in the production data center at COCC, a financial processing firm. This project had the potential to greatly improve COCC's performance, but it could also damage the company's reputation if SSD's earlier performance issues were not addressed. Cost was also a factor: SSD continues to be regarded as too expensive to implement in the data center.

Burney proved the reliability of the SSD installation in the face of industry skepticism and developed a cost/performance model that predicted a positive return on investment in just three months. The key to Burney's innovation was his ability to see how SSD technology could eliminate the need for new computer hardware and the accompanying enterprise database software fees.

Before the SSD installation, COCC had limited its storage to 25 databases per production server in order to maintain service-level agreements. Due to record customer growth, COCC's SLA model would have required an additional server and more storage to be purchased at a cost of $106,800, plus $150,000 in enterprise database licensing fees. Burney recognized that the enormous increase in processing speed from installing SSD technology would eliminate the need to purchase the extra server and storage. The savings of $256,800 more than offset the $212,000 that he proposed spending for SSD.

In August 2009, Burney's team migrated 80 percent of its production databases from Tier 1 Fibre Channel storage arrays to the new RamSan 620 SSD technology produced by Texas Memory Systems. The SSD technology not only generated the savings as predicted, it also reduced power consumption and footprint requirements by 80 percent, processed nightly production 85 percent faster, and accelerated transaction processing speed by 90 percent. The improvements enabled COCC to eliminate plans for additional hardware and software license purchases for the next two years.

Driving a hotel group to financial and energy efficiency

Tom Conophy
CIO, InterContinental Hotels Group

Since becoming CIO of IHG in 2006, which manages more than 4,800 hotels in 100 countries, Tom Conophy has replaced many of the costly, legacy systems using more leading-edge approaches. For example, Conophy made a considerable investment to upgrade IHG's Call Center technology to make use of cloud computing globally to support "any agent, any call" routing.

Today, Conophy is leading an effort called Green Engage, which assist hotels in learning about their energy consumption and implementing best practices to reduce energy usage and IHG's carbon footprint. Green Engage had a successful pilot implementation and is now being rolled out across the organization.

To manage the many initiatives and ensure they deliver on efficiency and innovation goals, Conophy set up a cross-functional team charged with ensuring IHG has a defined plan for building enterprise-level modular, reusable software services that support numerous consumers, functions, and best practices. This team makes the hard technology decisions that set up IHG for long-term technical, business, and financial success.

Immersive 3-D improves training and operations

Phiroz P. Darukhanavala

Phiroz "Daru" Darukhanavala heads a team at energy firm BP whose mission is to introduce external technology innovation to solve business problems that defy traditional IT solutions. Daru engages in at least one "game changing" technology introduction each year in which value is expected to exceed $50 million. In the past year, the game-changer focus has been 3-D virtual environments, used for training, collaboration, events, marketing, and operations.

An example of the technology's use is 3-D immersive training developed and deployed to 1,200 Arco AM/PM minimarket sites; research showed that trainees learned safety practices, food-handling standards, and baking steps with significantly less training time, greater retention of material, and improved consistency in baking products versus a control group. Likewise, another effort used 3-D technology to create a more efficient and effective way to plan and conduct corrosion inspections in Alaska operations.

When deciding to pursue the 3-D initiative, Darukhanavala recognized the significance of three converging developments. First, he saw that technology advances had made high-end computer graphics available on ordinary desktops and that the bandwidth necessary for the rich media was plentiful. Second, he realized that existing 3-D data from CAD, laser scanning, and photogrammetry tools could be used. Third, he saw that new suppliers and products had sprung up, creating many new 3-D business applications and an extensive ecosystem of suppliers and knowledge experts in 3-D immersive technologies.

Standardizing while making a major merger work

Scott Dillon
Head of Technology Infrastructure Services, Wells Fargo & Co.

The 2009 merger between Wells Fargo and Wachovia -- one of the largest in financial services history -- presented significant challenges in integrating the legacy infrastructures. Scott Dillon took on that effort, and the resulting infrastructure encompasses more than 60 petabytes of storage, includes more than 1 million square feet of data center space, and exceeds 200 MIPS in production. At the same time, it minimizes risk to production environments, maintains high availability and security for customers, and provides quicker time to market and increased efficiencies in the data centers.

To drive efficiencies, Dillon applied the approach of stabilize, standardize, and optimize. His team has successfully used standardized service offerings and all three kinds of virtualization (in server, storage and network), with more than 10,000 virtual devices currently in place. Doing so saved as much as $250 million by negating the need to create a new data center alone, while increasing computing power and reducing energy consumption. Under Dillon's leadership, Wells Fargo is headed to a common infrastructure with common technologies in place.

One of the early challenges Dillon faced in the integration was simply trying to ensure that infrastructure was recognized as a key contributor to a successful merger. Many times in mergers, companies neglect conducting thorough evaluations of the newly combined companies' individual backbones. Some companies might opt for a patchwork approach, which can drive up cost and degrade overall performance. Instead, Dillon kept infrastructure an integral part of the merger, ensuring it stays 6 to 12 months ahead of expected growth, while constantly re-evaluating what is needed for upcoming integration activities.

He guided his team to evaluate, transition, and leverage the best technologies from both companies, which has resulted in a well-integrated infrastructure, ready to support future growth. At the management level, Dillon has assembled a leadership team that is an exact 50/50 split between the legacy companies, to create a unified technology group in the aftermath of the merger.

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