Dimension Data Australia chief Steve Nola talks NTT Data, Dell Services and Oakton

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This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of CRN magazine.

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Dimension Data Australia chief Steve Nola talks NTT Data, Dell Services and Oakton

Aussies like to claim we punch above our weight. In the case of US$8 billion IT giant Dimension Data, there are facts to back up the claim.

The Australian market – typically a few percent of a global company’s revenue – accounts for “high teens” at Dimension Data, says Steve Nola, who has just celebrated the one-year anniversary since he stepped back into the top Australia job.

Nola’s perspective on Dimension Data has been shaped by a career with the company stretching back nearly three decades and encompassing both Australian and global remits. When he replaced Australian CEO Rodd Cunico in October 2016, it was a return to the role Nola had held for a decade until 2011, when he took a position running the company’s global cloud business.

“It is unusual for a global company where you have Australia that runs as a totally separate region,” says Nola. “We don’t run into Asia, we’re a standalone region.”

The 3000-staff Australian subsidiary’s achievements are not only measured in revenue. “This month we celebrate 30 years of being in Australia and there are not too many other companies that have been here that long.

“The Australian market is highly competitive”, Nola says. “Probably more competitive than the US, because the US has a lot of players but the market is huge, so you are trying to fish in a trout farm – you will catch a fish. 

“Here you have to be really precise. You always have to be innovative, you have to be aggressive and you have to get scale and that puts us in the leading edge with Dimension Data and our thinking, our capability and our services. A lot of the things we build here get globalised. A lot of the things that are core within our managed services came out of Australia.”

One of the company’s “best-kept secrets” is its research and development unit in North Ryde, says Nola. Here, more than 300 “lab coats” work on a range of intellectual property, in partnership with smaller teams in Dublin and the US, that gets rolled out globally. In particular, the North Ryde team specialises in R&D around automation, orchestration and what Dimension Data calls its “service layer”.

“Instead of identity management built five times over because it is for this application and for that application, you build it once and leverage all these apps off a common platform. We call that a service layer. All of that has been developed locally. A lot of the other as-a-service models have been developed locally – DR and backup-as-a-service all gets done in Australia.”

Dimension Data’s cloud business is heavily embedded in Australia, partly because Nola spent six years overseeing it from Melbourne following the global acquisition of OpSource and local purchase of BlueFire in 2011. “I was very passionate about moving into cloud, perhaps before the rest of the DD organisation had got their head around it.”

Once the shiny new toy, cloud has since become business-as-usual for DiData, he adds. “We built a business that was on a double-digit growth rate globally and now it becomes a BAU model for us, so it didn’t really need me to continue to incubate it.”

Big in Japan

While Australian innovation finds its way to the global company, Nola also gets excited by the intellectual property coming out of Dimension Data’s parent company, Japan’s Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation (NTT). A techie at heart who started out as an electrical engineer with Telstra (then Telecom Australia) in the ’80s, Nola is passionate about some of the innovations born out of NTT’s US$2.5 billion R&D spend, and eager to take them to market through Dimension Data.

One such development is immersive telepresence Kirari. This is full-blown holographic technology straight out of science fiction. With the Tokyo Olympics set for 2020, Nola says NTT’s “ultimate ambition is to take the opening ceremony of the Olympics and sell it to another stadium and replay it”.

In the local market, Nola sees potential in health, one of Dimension Data’s three major verticals alongside education and financial services. He envisages aged care facilities with virtual kitchens or virtual interfaces so seniors can speak to their grandchildren, and hopes this technology could help slow down the onset of dementia. “We are working now in pilots and betas with a lot of partners in that space today.”

Another NTT innovation with use-cases in health is Hitoe. This nanofibre material is infused with conductive polymers that can be fashioned into, for instance, a shirt. This can be remotely monitored for things such as vital signs, allowing medical staff to monitor outpatients more effectively, freeing up beds and supporting an ageing population, says Nola.

Other synergies between NTT companies have more immediate enterprise applications. The telco has three major subsidiaries operating in Australia: Dimension Data, NTT Communications ICT Solutions and NTT Data, which last year acquired Dell Services for US$3 billion.

“We are working with the Dell guys – the NTT Data guys – at a local level,” says Nola. “Their focus in Australia is predominantly in the health vertical.”

There are distinctions between the three companies’ offerings. Dell Services was strong in IT outsourcing, while NTT Data is a platinum SAP partner focused on enterprise applications.

“In Australia they are more the delivery end, not the go-to-market end, so we’re taking the go-to-market and their expertise in health and adding it to our own vertical play in the health market,” says Nola. “We have a joint value proposition for clients.

“Everyone has their role to play. If someone comes along and says, ‘I want to deploy SAP in my environment’, that is an NTT Data play. We don’t sell SAP licensing but what we will do is provide all the security infrastructure behind that deployment. It is taking the strengths of all those companies and bringing them together to meet a client requirement.”

The synergies from the NTT family are also apparent in Dimension Data’s managed cloud business. The company runs two data centres in Australia, with its platform built on tier-one vendors such as VMware, Cisco, Dell EMC and NetApp.

“We built it with a view that we wanted to address the enterprise space. And enterprises want to have a look under the cover. We have built it the way they would have built it if they had bought the stuff themselves on-premises. We could have gone down the path of getting Chinese and Taiwanese no-brand blades but we felt our differentiation was that clients trust that environment and they already have existing infrastructure that looked very similar to that cloud infrastructure.”

Room in the cloud

The rise of hyperscale clouds seems unstoppable. Gartner data published in September found the global infrastructure-as-a-service market to be worth US$22 billion in 2016, an increase of 31.4 percent. Market leader Amazon Web Services grew 45.9 percent to turn over US$9.8 billion. This must lend an air of uncertainty to any company investing in their own cloud stack, but Nola is confident about Dimension Data’s differentiators.

“Clients are very sensitive about having their production applications even on a private cloud. They may move their three-tier web application to a hyperscale provider but their production apps are still going on private cloud or virtual private cloud instances.”

This year AWS and Microsoft Azure have redoubled their efforts to attract monolithic enterprise applications, but Nola remains sceptical about the demand for running heavy-duty apps like SAP on the public cloud.

“If you want to run Office 365, the best place to do it is the Azure platform. It naturally lives there. If you want to run a high-end production application like SAP HANA, are you really going to stick it in a [public cloud]? Although they can create the instance, do they have the horsepower, the reservation rights, etcetera? We don’t see many clients do it. You get one or two use cases but most are building in a private cloud environment.”

However, he adds that Azure and AWS “are part of our story” and says Dimension Data played with early versions of Azure Stack.

Late last year, Dimension Data launched a Microsoft managed services offering based on Ceryx, a Toronto-based solution provider it acquired that April. The service gives clients a way to manage Microsoft deployments on-premises, and in public, private and hybrid, spanning Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, and Office 365.

Going mobile

SAP, along with Cisco, are both members of Apple’s expanding cohort of enterprise alliance partners (along with IBM, Deloitte and Accenture). In a bid for enterprise credibility, the iPhone maker is working with SAP to develop mobile business apps for HANA in-memory database software, and extending Cisco’s unified communications experience to the iPhone.

Dimension Data announced a global Apple integration business in June, aiming to help businesses manage corporate apps and data across the Mac, iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch. The Apple business unit will include a worldwide team of Dimension Data network and system engineers, as well as client service and support teams. 

Dimension Data plans to cross-train its application development workers supporting SAP HANA and its Cisco collaboration experts to get them involved in the Apple practice. “There’s a sweet spot – all those three companies come together at DD,” says Nola. The opportunities have been “phenomenal”.

For example, he points to an unnamed Australian financial services client with up to 20,000 iOS devices that wants to improve user experience for workers. “How do you make Cisco CallManager real on that device? They no longer need a handset on the desk.”

Nola sees cybersecurity as the biggest opportunity for Dimension Data. “It is probably our fastest-growing business.”

Nola reveals the company is in the process of hiring a senior exec around cybersecurity. This recruit will join several new faces to have been appointed under Nola’s 12-month tenure in the top job. These include Aidan Heke, who joined out of Woolworths to become Dimension Data’s director of services in October 2016. More recently, Peter Fury was appointed as senior vice president after exiting DXC Technology. In September, Dimension Data announced Craig Lennard as the new chief executive of Oakton.

Better aligning Oakton with Dimension Data has been another development in Nola’s 12 months. 

“We ran them as separate businesses and that made sense at the time, but we have brought the two businesses much closer together in the past 12 months.”

Technology from Oakton formed part of Dimension Data’s data analytics engagement with the Tour de France, which has been in action for the past two tours. It’s yet another example of Australian innovation winning on the world stage.  

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