Experian is a quintessential information services company. Best known for its credit rating services for both businesses and consumers, the company also offers ‘decision analytics’ and marketing data services to a global audience. That means IT is not just a back-office function – it directly supports product delivery.
It is fitting, then, that before joining Experian two years ago, CIO Jim Fitzpatrick worked for two online service providers. He was previously CIO at Intuit, the online small business accounting software provider, and before that senior vice president at Sabre, the company behind online travel agency Travelocity.
Fitzpatrick has brought this experience to bear at Experian, he says. “Experian is a product company that is underpinned by real-time online services,” he explains. “And increasingly, those products are becoming embedded in the work flows of our clients.”
In this interview with Information Age, Fitzpatrick explains how the company is looking to expand its global footprint through the use of repeatable “IT platforms”; how it is driving down the energy footprint of its data centres; and how he is simplifying the financial model of the IT department.
What is Experian’s strategic focus right now?
Expanding globally is foundational to our strategy, and we see a lot of unmet needs. For example, we believe our offerings in the credit business really help economies run efficiently – a credit bureau is an important part of an effective economy.
We expand geographically through a combination of partnering with local organisations and setting up our own resources in the country. We’ve just signed a deal with six banks to set up a credit bureau in Australia; earlier this year we set up the first credit bureau in India; and we’re setting one up in the Netherlands. We’ve also made an acquisition in Colombia to set up a bureau there too.
How does IT support that global expansion?
Over the last few years, through the leaner times, we’ve been investing in product platforms that are far more portable across geographies. One next generation of global credit bureau is a global platform that we can move to many markets; we’re looking to use the same platform in Australia as we do in the Netherlands.
Technologically, the platforms are tailored to the requirements of each particular line-of-business. The architecture and the underlying systems we use depend on the controls that each line-of-business requires. At times, we can use a lighter-weight database product for our marketing services business.
How do you manage e.g. privacy and data protection across so many geographies?
Every time we implement one of these platforms, it has to be tailored to the demands of the local regulator. We codify the local laws in business logic during the software development process. And that’s essential, because the ability to leverage those platforms around the globe is a key part of what enables our growth.
We work extremely hard to make sure we are compliant with any industry, government and regional policies, because understanding those policies is fundamental to our credibility in the market place. We have operating processes, training and system controls all geared towards ensuring privacy.
And how do you balance bringing on new sources of information for your clients against these regulations?
Everything is permission-based. It isn’t a free for all: we’re subject to some very strict rules of how we can use data between lines of business. For example, our credit data is ring-fenced from the marketing services data.
But there are still new things we can do. In North America, we recently started to use rental payment histories for our credit ratings, which is something the other bureaus don’t use. There are many, many examples of reaching out for non-traditional data sources to enhance existing offerings and to create new offerings.
Can you provide an overview of your data centre estate?
One of our big data centre locations is in Fairham, near Nottingham, which supports services for the UK and Europe, some services for Asia-Pacific and also some of our internal IT systems. Then we have some data centres in Texas, from where we mainly serve our North American customers. Our second largest market for credit bureau services is Brazil, and we operate data centres for services there. Then we have a whole series of secondary locations.
What has been the focus of managing these data centres?
Over the last year or so, we’ve been investing in technologies that draw down our energy consumption. We found our cold aisle containment initiative to be very effective. Through that programme, we’ve probably saved about quarter of a million dollars and taken down our CO2 consumption by more than 1,000 tonnes. By doing that, and raising the temperature of the data centres, we’ve been able to cut our PUE ratio by about 25%.
As for sustainability, in the US we buy some of power from wind generators, although we don’t have that option in the UK. Now we’re looking at solar, and the ability to use external air as a source of cooling.
Virtualisation and cloud
To what extent have you virtualised your IT infrastructure?
We have virtualised around 50% of our server estate so far. We are working towards a target of around 70%. Sometimes systems don’t lend themselves to virtualisation, but as we replace old technology, we will move the majority of the legacy technology on to virtualised platforms.
Storage virtualisation is definitely an area where we expect to invest more, and I’d say we’re at the start of the desktop virtualisation curve. There’s certainly some interest in it from the business, and as we go through our desktop refreshes we are considering more virtualised platforms as an option.
As a large data centre operator, does cloud computing hold any appeal?
We would consider using cloud computing services but our data protection requirements and our availability and performance needs mean it wouldn’t be an easy option.
However, we are certainly thinking about how we can drive cloud efficiencies within our own environment. We already use a private cloud for some of our software development teams, a self service capability that lets set up what they need very quickly and tear it down very quickly.
How are these technologies affecting the IT department’s operating model?
We charge line-of-business units on a per server basis for our virtualised platforms, although we don’t charge our developers for using the private cloud – we want them to have what they need.
This is not new, though – we’ve been charging back to lines of business for IT services for a while now. Technology costs are material to the profit and loss calculation of each line of business.
In fact we’ve recently undergone a process of simplification of our chargeback scheme. Over time, people try to define IT services in an increasingly granular fashion, but that means the process of charging back becomes more complex.
So we’ve eliminated some of the granularity of rates and charges that weren’t adding substantive value, and this has improved transparency: if our rate structure is simplified, then there’s less data to try and get your head around.