Talking Hardware and Software with OCCS Director Ivor D’Souza

Internet, communication and social media concepts on a network with laptop connectingKeeping NLM’s data center up and running for millions of users worldwide every day?

That responsibility lies with NLM’s Office of Computer and Communications Systems. And it’s work that goes on 24/7 through snowstorms, power outages, and even the rare government shutdown.

The Office of Computer and Communications System (OCCS) team of 180 people, three-quarters of whom are contractors, is led by Ivor D’Souza.

The sweep of (recent) history

D’Souza said OCCS’s focus has changed since 2001, when “initiatives were put in place to advance the stability of operations.” Then, around 2010, “we felt we had mastered managing operations and wanted to focus on being more strategic—working on initiatives that help us take the organization in new and better directions.”

The challenges today?

Funding is a challenge.

“When projects are successful, we need bigger systems and more funds. In the private sector, successes bring in more revenue, which can then be reinvested into IT operations. That’s not the case in government,” said D’Souza. “Also, 80 to 90 percent of our budget is for labor. This is an annual recurring cost that does not go away—it is required to deliver IT services that our customers expect.”

In addition, D’Souza said, “We also have the challenge of requiring one-time ‘capital’ funds to refresh major components of our data center and infrastructure. But when budgets are tight, those funds are hard to come by.”

And yet, there are strategies.

“One strategy for saving money is to lower our use of on-premise computing and shift some of our computing to the cloud,” said D’Souza. “By doing this we don’t have to worry about major capital expenditures, because that risk has now shifted to the cloud vendor, and we are only required to pay recurring costs for the systems we’ve moved to the cloud.”

Software vs. hardware?

Next came some unexpected news to this writer: software is being used to run almost everything these days, including hardware.

“In NLM’s traditional world of computing, where we manage racks of hardware in our data center, there’s a significant dependence on managing and operating hardware. However, in the cloud, we no longer own hardware; we can spin up hardware in the cloud by simply executing code,” said D’Souza. “This concept is known as infrastructure-as-code—an example of how software skills are increasingly becoming more important than hardware skills.”

D’Souza points out that software is increasingly becoming the new currency in many spheres of life and that many of the top firms around the world are software-based companies: Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.  Software, especially artificial intelligence, has the potential to automate many typical legacy functions and transform the world.

Posed photo of a group of eight men and three women

The OCCS leadership team (from left): Kevin Gates, Dar-Ning Kung, Dianna Adams, Duc Nguyen, Ivor D’Souza, Bryant Pegram, Tony Bigbee, Fettina Bryant, Wei Ma, Michael Simpson, and Rex Shuler.

What else is OCCS focused on?

“For us, it’s always about customer service and user experience,” the OCCS Director explained.

There are four main areas that OCCS is concentrating on, in service of this goal:

  • Migrating public-facing apps to the cloud. This action will simplify operations. Currently, apps run out of the onsite and offsite data centers. The plan is to eventually sunset the offsite data center and have all major NLM systems run in the cloud.
  • IT modernization. “With older, legacy equipment or software, there’s poor vendor support, security vulnerabilities are difficult to correct, and it’s hard to find a modern workforce that wants to work on legacy technology. Also, customers don’t get the features they need,” said D’Souza. “NLM is seeking the funds to modernize its technology, knowing that the effort requires careful planning.”
  • Digitalization. This term refers to a way of building digital solutions by adding new value for customers. It stands in contrast to the old way, known as electronic automation, whereby organizations focused on automating an existing business process using information technology, explains D’Souza. “With the passage of time, technology is capable of accomplishing tasks that were not previously possible, so it is incumbent upon an IT organization to introduce such solutions to advance NLM’s mission.”
  • The IT strategic plan. This effort is closely integrated with NLM’s strategic plan for 2017-2027. “We will develop an IT strategic plan to focus the various IT organizations within to NLM to deliver to a common blueprint, with a strong focus on advancing NLM’s strategic goals,” said D’Souza.  

Providing data for millions of users worldwide every day will continue. How it happens will change as technology changes, but Ivor D’Souza and his team are up for the challenge.

By Melanie Modlin, NLM in Focus staff writer

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