Across the virtual world

There are many barriers to overcome when engaging offshore software developers. Some are geographical, some cultural. But a significant hurdle for payments processing provider VocaLink as it sought to get the most out of its outsourced Indian development resources was simply a matter of systems integration.

“Until about 18 months ago, our Indian developers would work on the code on their own servers,” recalls IT director Nick Masterson-Jones. “They would then send that code back over to the UK, and we would have to spend time integrating it into our existing systems, and testing those integrations.”

It was the resolve to address this inefficiency that led VocaLink to examine desktop virtualisation, recalls Masterson-Jones. “We wanted the developers in India to be able to write code as if was being written here in the UK,” he says. “That was the genesis of our virtualisation project.”

Using a mix of Citrix and VMware desktop virtualisation software based on blade servers and a storage area network from HP, VocaLink made 200 virtual desktops available to its India-based developers, allowing them to work on its core systems directly.

This has had the desired effect of removing an unnecessary step of integration and testing from the development cycle, says Masterson-Jones. It also helped the company to manage the collaboration between its two offshore suppliers, Perot Systems and Wipro. “Now we are all working on one code base which improves agility,” he says.

And the security measures built into the system have eased any concerns about intellectual property going for a wander. “You can’t copy-and-paste code out of the virtual machine,” explain Masterson-Jones. “Now nothing leaves our data centre.”
Applying desktop virtualisation to its offshore operation helped VocaLink to realise the potential of the technology. “It took time to recognise just how powerful some of this technology was,” recalls Masterson-Jones, but some fundamental improvements in the economics of ITinfrastructure management gradually began to emerge.

“We liked the way it took the capital cost out deploying new projects,” he says by way of example. “Previously, new projects always began with buying more servers.” With virtualisation, projects could be initiated using reclaimed capacity on existing hardware.

So VocaLink began to apply virtualisation to its corporate IT systems. Thin client devices are now the norm, and the resulting centralisation of IT support has improved problem resolution time. Despite some employees being reluctant to part with their old machines, the company has by and large taken to the virtual model well.

“The expression ‘shadow me’ [describing when a remote support agent takes control of a user’s machine] has entered the lexicon,” says Masterson-Jones.

Desktop virtualisation also came in handy when heavy snowfall in February 2009 prevented many staff from making it into the office. By providing remote access to the virtual desktops, VocaLink ensured that 98% of its employees were working despite the disruption.

Virtualisation has also improved the company’s energy efficiency, says Masterson-Jones. “It has been exciting to measure what we’ve been saving in energy costs,” he says. “And [making IT energy efficient] may not bring competitive advantage, but it is something you should doing anyway.”

The next task is to apply VocaLink’s experience of virtualisation to its production systems – the machines that process its clients’ transactions. This is more problematic, as those systems are altogether more complex, more erratic in terms of demand and significantly more business-critical.

But Masterson-Jones’s recent experience of the technology is such that he is keen to find a way to make it work in that environment. “I had some bad experiences with desktop virtualisation 10 years ago, so I was cynical at first,” he says. “But we have been delighted with the experience this time round.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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