Getting Out of the Infrastructure Business


Arguably the purveyors of the coolest hipster beers available on the market today, Pabst Brewing Company is also leading the charge on the avant garde of technology under the visionary guidance of Ben Haines. It’s not every day I get a chance to sit down and talk with a CIO who can just as easily speak to BYOD as he can BYOB, so I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with Haines in Boston last month at MobileConnect. Haines, with a keen sense for looking at the big picture, is transforming IT at Pabst to a pure cloud-play though connecting business needs with hosted/cloud-based solutions.

Haines believes that IT needs get back to understanding the business they are part of; IT exists to serve the business and not the other way around.  “IT’s value to the business isn’t making sure the server light is green, its making sure the business has the services they need.” Haines stated.  This attitude is a surprisingly rare quality in a technologist, even at the CIO level. It is easy for those of us in technology to get caught up in the technology and wanting to bring it in-house. While Pabst isn’t 100% cloud based today, Haines is steadily driving the organization there. “Nothing needs to be on-site. I don’t see any need. I’d dump everything off-site if I could.”

Haines has experienced first-hand how the in-house approach to technology can have you running in circles. Haines described how at his prior position at Red Bull he spent two years and several million dollars putting in a WebSphere portal. “By the time we finished deploying it, we had to upgrade it. The upgrade was a nine month episode as well. By the time you get done with that you totally lose focus on the business,” he stated. Besides losing business focus, he also saw that the world around him had evolved as well. “At the end of the install, social was getting started, how do you fit that into the deployment?” His reply drove home the challenge with in-house enterprise technology deployments,   “More SKUs from IBM, with another eighteen months to two year installation and training.”

I asked Haines if moving to cloud services made sense financially and could be easily justified. “From an overall cost perspective it may be a little more, but it depends on which segment. Email is half the cost. I went from $120 per year to $50 per year per user. If you look at point solutions, it is easy math.” But Haines admits that there are some capabilities that, on the surface, a cloud solution appears much more expensive. “If you purely look at your [on-premise] storage costs against a solution such as Box, your storage will win hands down. It’s cheaper to put 4TB in a remote location than use Box. You really need to look at the big picture. What are your software development costs? What is it going to cost to revive that functionality?” It is keeping the complete scope in mind, i.e. the total capability he is trying to deliver versus the total cost, that allows Haines to confidently make the transformation.

The shift from internally owned and maintained infrastructure to cloud services shouldn’t be a blind exchange either. Though he prefers to move as much as possible to the cloud, Haines is aware of the limitation of cloud services. Haines would love to move to NetSuite or force.com for CRM, but past experiences with customization of cloud services keeps his approach practical. In a previous role, after burning through a half million dollars, “I had the’ oh shit’ moment and realized I was creating a bigger beast then I already had. As soon as you start custom coding you are in this whole world of pain…you are still in this world of owning the code. When you move outside of their business model you have challenges.”

While Haines has been able to move many functions, such as email, to cloud services there are still legacy systems that are not a good fit for current cloud capabilities. For Haines, the best answer is to find middle ground, an intermediate step, while waiting for cloud services to evolve. “I have to own some systems right now,” he said. “Everything I own is legacy, so the baby step is going to rackspace. I’ve taken the server room and moved it to rackspace; from rackspace then to public and private cloud solutions.”

I asked him why he thinks IT organizations keep going down the same path of being in the infrastructure business, of needing to own and maintain all of the technology in-house.  Haines replied, “IT habits; the IT comfort zone. That is why IT exists in their minds. Don’t get me wrong, in the past I’ve seen some really cool hardware. I’m geeked-out buying all that stuff. I put in a virtual infrastructure back in 2006 and took fifty servers down to six.” But Haines learned a very pragmatic lesson from that deployment that allows him to be confident in his approach today. He continued on, “It’s fun, but even that took six months to implement. You don’t have that luxury now. It’s about speed and agility at the end of the day, making sure IT can do what they need to do for the business.”

Next up – how Haines is tranforming minds as well at Pabst.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Getting Out of the Infrastructure Business

  1. This is a great article. In the programming space I am constantly reminding engineers who have lost focus talking about the coolest new tool that it’s more important to pick “the right tool for the right job” and to solve an actual problem the customer sees. That’s the same strategy as “remember to solve a business problem” which is what this article basically points out.

    And from people who drink beer. An added win.

  2. Pingback: Service Based IT – Connecting the Dots | remotelyMOBILE

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