Excellence revisited

Four former User Excellence Award winners share their latest accomplishments and project advice.

For 20 years we have honored the best in networking through our annual User Excellence Award. But the innovation of our past winners didn't stop the day they received their crystal statuettes. Many have gone on to extract more benefits from the projects that gained them User Excellence recognition. Others have set their sights on new projects that will boost user productivity, cut costs, increase security or make their companies more competitive. We take a look.

Ed Mann and Bob Piccirillo

Vice presidents of IS

Prudential Financial, Newark, N.J.

Ed Mann (right) and Bob Piccirillo (left) won the 2001 User Excellence Award. At the time, Mann was vice president of network planning and Piccirillo, vice president of field infrastructure. Piccirillo also earned honorable mention in our 1998 competition for a network overhaul he oversaw while vice president of field technology at Prudential Insurance.

Mann and Piccirillo had their hands full in 2001 as they headed up what was deemed one of the nation's largest VPN projects, a network for connecting Prudential Financial's 25,000 telecommuting employees and business partners. Not ones to rest on their laurels, the duo is still tweaking the company's remote-access network. Top of the list has been a complete refresh of 6,000 employee laptops nationwide to Windows XP.

"The old machines were starting to have high maintenance, and there was a lot of breakage," Piccirillo says. "Users had to mail them into a depot to be exchanged for a similar model. After three years, it was definitely time for an upgrade."

The IT team developed its own file transfer, and another tool used made sure the company's proprietary agent system could interoperate with XP, which is now the companywide standard platform. The team carried out the migration in two months. "The laptops are now being used in a more secure way - we are able to enforce that they have proper anti-virus software and firewalls," Mann says. "Otherwise they get blocked from the network."

With the migration project complete in February 2004, the team turned to other challenges: the variety of ways in which users want to access corporate data. Although Mann could not name the tools the company is using, he says Prudential has data security programs in place.

One such tool protects information that is accessed from a non-Prudential machine such as a kiosk. Any data or documents left behind when a user signs off of the VPN network get deleted automatically. Essentially a virtual desktop, the tool loads an applet to the machine and creates a virtual C drive for users upon logon. After logging off, that drive is erased. "We have people all over the world using our remote-access product. It's important to get them in, but it's also important to secure the data," Piccirillo says.

Mann's advice to his IT peers: "Standardize the platforms you're supporting. Lock down the environment like we did with the agent laptops. The more you open it up to non-standard environments, the more you jeopardize security."

Piccirillo's advice: "Make sure you have a clearly defined security architecture with all the components planned out ahead of time before you initiate the project. But be flexible enough to swap out other components. And go toward a centralized model of software distribution. The more you can push out to the end user, whether firewalls or anti-virus, the better off you are."

Scott Richert

Director of network services

Sisters of Mercy Health System, St. Louis

Richert won the 1998 User Excellence Award while network administrator for Unity Health, a division of Sisters of Mercy Health System.

For Richert, the years since Unity Health's win for Year 2000 compliance excellence have been a blur. Shortly after the company's win, Richert moved to Unity's parent corporation - Sisters of Mercy Health System - to become technology architect. More recently, he became director of network services, with a goal of consolidating all IT services across a four-state region. This work is part of the "Genesis Project," a four-year corporate effort to redesign core clinical and business work processes throughout the Mercy hospital system and then enable IT to support the new processes. "Our organization is trying to meld budgets, strategies and directions," he says.

Richert and his team plan to centralize all applications and infrastructure, which will require standardizing on backbone, operating system and application technologies. "We're going to get rid of the six backbone infrastructures we have in favor of a single Internet connection we can share," he says. "We're creating a wide-area network to support the centralization of all services."

For identity management, the team is migrating the hospital system to Microsoft Active Directory. It's working on paring down the number of applications used for patient registration, laboratory processes, supply chain and other day-to-day functions. Richert wants "one supply-chain application, one clinical application, one financial application - all running out of a single location." Today, the company has 1,200 applications, Richert says.

At the crux of this change is the move to a single IT budget. Traditionally, each business unit has had its own network manager, but under the Genesis Project, all locations will report in to Richert and his team. "We're working toward organizational uniformity," he says.

Richert is confident that consolidation of these applications and infrastructure will give Mercy pricing power with vendors and service providers. He and his team are betting that standardization will bring improved communication in the organization and hopefully eliminate time-consuming and repetitive data collection. "I don't want to give the impression that we've arrived," he says. "We have much more work to do, and I'm privileged to be part of it."

His advice to IT executives: "A great team of bright people with cooperative attitudes has really been key to our success. I encourage IT managers to develop a strong team by empowering worthy team members who demonstrate a strong sense of ownership for the vision of the department."

He also urges his peers to keep their eyes on the organization's core values and strategic vision. "Prepare your technology infrastructure to be ready to support that vision. Standardize your infrastructure and keep complexity to a minimum. Fewer vendors and platforms are better than more," he says.

Roger Thibodeau

IT executive

Royal & SunAlliance USA, Charlotte, N.C.

When Thibodeau won the 2002 User Excellence Award, he was chief network executive at R&SA USA.

The project that won Thibodeau and his team at Royal & SunAlliance USA the 2002 User Excellence Award was a mass rollout of Windows XP, Active Directory and other progressive software to the company's 7,000 workstations. The base infrastructure that Thibodeau and his team laid down for that rollout continues to pay off for the company.

At the time, Thibodeau and his team developed a network that would let users self-migrate to new applications and platforms. Today, the IT team is taking advantage of the automated system for other challenges.

"The thing that's been hammering us is virus management and patching Internet Explorer or our operating system," Thibodeau says.

Rather than going desk to desk to guarantee anti-virus and patch updates, his team turned to the Radia change and configuration management tool from Novadigm, now part of HP's Global Software Business Unit.

"If we didn't have a solid mechanism for transparent delivery of those updates and patches, we'd be dead - we have 7,000 desktops," he says.

Users can automatically receive updates when they log on. "We don't need folks in the field, we don't even announce when we're going to do a patch," he says. "They don't know they received a new virus .dat file or that we've applied a patch to Explorer or the operating system."

The self-service setup continues to make Thibodeau proud. "Users have gotten to the point where they take it for granted, it's so stable," he says.

His advice to IT executives: "You need to be comprehensive. Don't buy a little product for 10% of the problem and another product for another 10%. Put down a good base infrastructure and think it through. You don't want to be there a year later asking for money to correct what you did a year earlier."

Gittlen is a freelance writer in Northboro, Mass. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net .

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