Bechtel Rebuilds Its Computer Network from Scratch

The construction giant's chief information officer tells how input from Google, Amazon, and helped him reconstruct his IT system

Last year, Bechtel Chief Information Officer Geir Ramleth fulfilled what's only a pipe dream for most IT executives: He rebuilt Bechtel Group's corporate data network from the ground up. In March 2007, after nine months of research and analysis, the construction giant started work to revamp the way employees, contractors, and others use Bechtel's network. Early on, Ramleth looked to what he considered some of the most technologically advanced companies, including Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), and (CRM) to see what lessons he could learn about overhauling Bechtel's network.

What emerged was Project Services Network, which now lets authorized users such as Bechtel employees, contractors, and partners access the corporate network with any device at any time through an Internet portal. There, they can find e-mail, software applications, and the files they need to do their jobs. Although it may sound simple, Bechtel built three data centers from scratch, essentially creating an internal cloud computing platform. Now the company is testing so-called virtual desktops that would work with Bechtel's new network and potentially make it even easier to manage so many far-flung computers. In November, Ramleth was inducted into CIO Magazine's Hall of Fame for his innovative work at Bechtel. He recently spoke to writer Rachael King about Bechtel's new network. Edited excerpts follow.

Tell me why you decided to completely rebuild your IT network and model it on Google, Amazon, and other companies.We basically asked a very simple question: If Bechtel started business today, would we do IT the way that we are doing it? The answer was no. So we basically said, Let us go to the people that actually have done paradigm shifts in the way they operate and let us learn from them. We probably dealt with about a dozen and a half companies that we researched.

Did these companies open their doors to you?Some were extremely helpful. Salesforce was probably the most helpful from the very beginning. We learned a lot from them and they have been very good at it.

What business challenges made this transformation necessary?What we really tried to solve was to be sure that we had solutions for how to protect our intellectual property. That's where it started. We do business in more places around the world, so we have more locations in more distributed ways, and those locations are not necessarily as permanent as [during] the old world order. Because of the nature of where you go, you have more of a transient workforce as well.

And yet even a transient workforce, for a period at least, needs access to your systems.You have full-time employees, temporary employees, supply chain, and customers. We do projects where our customers participate with us. We do projects where our suppliers participate with us. And when you say we're doing [projects] in more places around the world and we have people who are transient, how do we protect what matters to us? …There are myriad other companies that are trying to solve the same problems.

How is your network different today with Project Services Network than it was a couple of years ago?First of all, the technical side of it is different in the way that there's more capacity in it, more redundancy in it, and more optimization built into it. We built our data centers in a much more efficient way.

Part of your transformation means being able to deliver everything as a service. Is that right?We want people to have the same kind of user experience when they work for one of our projects as they do when they go to Amazon and buy a book.

So it's almost a software-as-a-service model where your employees or your contractors or partners are accessing your network via the Internet?Exactly. We changed our security to be one based on policy, not topology. Somebody might have a very deep access and others might have a very shallow one. [Under the new system,] I know what I am exposing at that time. In a very traditional model in a corporation, when you're on the inside, well then, we automatically seem to have trusted you with everything. At one time, one-third of the people that had access to our internal network were not employees. We hadn't built it up as a service inside to be able to restrict it in those ways.

You've been able to achieve this transformation without additional funding. How were you able to do that?In IT…you have to buy new servers or you have to expand storage and you have to do maintenance on your applications. We basically said: We know what we need to do—let us be sure that we don't [make] any investments on the old. Let us only put money onto the new. Many people think that if you want to make a change, the first thing you do is you go and ask for money. We said no, let us assume we don't have any money, but we still need to do it.

I've also heard that you're doing desktop virtualization. How does that fit into your Project Services Network?Virtualization will give us many benefits. One, it will do that untying [of the physical device and the virtual desktop] so the front-end device that is being used isn't that important any longer—and since it isn't that important any longer, you start getting other benefits, such as [less] maintenance. Another one: As people in enterprises work, there's always constant commotion in the form of moving. So you can imagine all these offices that come and go all the time. Well, we move computers all the time. So, if you don't have to move these things anymore, you don't have to maintain them at the same level that you did before. You have user experiences that are similar at home as they are at the office. You don't have to have as much training anymore.

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