CTOs find ways to integrates

Curtis Brown, CTO of New York-based Princeton Review, said the down economy has forced him to approach the future in a more creative way.

“In the heyday of the boom, it was easy to say, ‘Let’s drop US$750,000 on a new system and add on some new features,'” Brown explained. “Most CTOs are looking for value with their existing investments.”

Brown and other CTOs want to save costs while thinking about an eventual economic upturn. They’re positioning their companies to wring maximum value out of their legacy systems so they can better compete as the economy improves. These chief technologists are looking for ways to integrate systems where possible, all the while looking at how technology can help them strengthen connections with partners and create new products.

It’s what the savvy leader is doing, said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc. “They are making better use of the services and hardware they have to get better efficiency. But they are using the resources they have to set up for the future. It’s a great way to use what [the CTOs have] got to prepare for the next wave.”

Legacy opportunities

Although retooling legacy systems is nothing new, it’s being done while looking to the future and with new technologies. “We are scoping these efforts with an eye to improving our interfaces to our partners and customers,” said Brown of the strategy at the Princeton Review. “We will be leapfrogging the competition.” To do so, Brown plans to use Microsoft’s .Net Web services platform to integrate and scale the applications used by his educational testing company.

In addition, Jorge Perez, vice-president of IT at NII Holdings, a subsidiary of wireless provider Nextel Communications, is deploying legacy systems as a strategic tool to bring the telecommunications carrier back from hard times that have afflicted his industry.

Taking a different tack, Brian Finley, CTO of the nearly $2 billion medical products supplier PSS/World Medical, is replacing legacy computing infrastructure picked from an acquisitions spree by using a software integration system.

At the online search engine company Ask Jeeves, CTO Jeremy Rosenblatt is customizing his data warehouse so that it can be easily extended when necessary.

Some CTOs are able to personally oversee the integration of their IT shop to position it as they see fit. Both Brown of the Princeton Review and Rosenblatt of Ask Jeeves supervise integration strategies they think will serve their companies well.

“CTOs need to find out where are the core values of their products and decide how to extend them,” Brown said. “There are tools coming out of Web services that are making it easier to do that.”

The Princeton Review, an educational testing preparation service for students, which includes three Web sites, has many legacy applications that track student performance and activities. Finding a way to efficiently integrate the applications is a challenge, Brown said.

Brown turned to Delphi applications, a core business system application for programming classes. The CTO will use Microsoft’s .Net Web services framework to integrate applications with Delphi and anticipates using Delphi to integrate future features.

Brown’s decision is driven both by time and finances. He believes it will be easier to extend the functionality of Delphi with other applications. “It’s important for us to continue to evaluate the core products without making a larger investment in another product and rebuilding functionality from the bottom up,” he said.

Application integration and the ease of use of .Net will allow the company to scale offerings when the time comes to expand the business. “A lot of companies are building stovepipe applications that don’t integrate very well,” he added.

Brown is not the only CTO concerned with scalability. Rosenblatt, of Ask Jeeves in Emeryville, Calif., echoes Brown on the issue. He is also eagerly awaiting and prepared for an economic upturn.

Ask Jeeves has deployed multiple servers to run the many functions of its Web site. “We’re not facing the problems that older companies have with their mainframes systems. We’re not that old,” said the CTO of the six-year-old company.

Rosenblatt has built a lean server infrastructure using a mixture of Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Dell, and Sun servers. As needed, he can add to the platform, serving the changing business demands of the company. “We can enhance and extend cluster warehousing [of the server infrastructure],” he said. “It’s a system we built, so it’s easier to work with.”

Rosenblatt said he can easily launch new features or revenues models off of the infrastructure. “We can add additional servers as needed,” he said.