Red hot racing

ACN sat down with Graeme Hackland, IT manager for Renault Formula One during his recent visit to Dubai to discuss how IT greases the wheels of the high-octane world of racing

Tags: RenaultUnited Arab Emirates
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Red hot racing HACKLAND: When we arrive at any site anywhere in the world, it’s an empty garage so you essentially start with nothing.
By  Imthishan Giado Published  February 28, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

What are your thoughts on general IT practice in the region?
We have the same issues in Europe that you have over here. Your comms costs are a little higher than we have perhaps, but it's still an issue for us as well. As a F1 team travelling around the world, comms is a big issue with regards to getting the data back.

But in terms of datacentres, you seem to be able to build them quicker than we can. In terms of IT security and protecting our data, we face the same challenges, use the same tools - IT is IT.

What impact will the economic crisis have on your 2009 IT spending?
Motorsport has been badly affected by the credit crunch. We've seen Honda pull out of F1, Kawasaki pulling out of MotoGP and some of the WRC teams pull out. Motorsport is going to be affected even further.

What the F1 teams have done is get together as the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA). They've made proposals on how they can cut costs and take out the things that are really not adding benefits to the spectators but are costing the teams lots of money like some of the behind-the-scenes development work. Hopefully all the teams will there to go racing.

In terms of our team, we will be cutting budget obviously - Renault is affected just like the other motor manufacturers. We're in a strong position and not known as a team which wastes funding. When we won the championship in 2005 and 2006, we had about the fifth or sixth biggest budget. There's not a huge amount of fat in the company in terms of people or resources.

Do your IT project timelines mirror the accelerated lifecycle of F1 development?
Sometimes we do large projects but we tend to follow the racing season. Out of season, that's when we're doing all of the work for the next season's racing and test team. During the year, we're doing all of the work for the aerodynamics team and the design office when they have a bit of a quieter period.

What projects do you do - and do they differ from the norm?
A lot of it is around software development. We deployed 70 upgrades to code or new applications last year. That was quite a high rate of change from within the department that we pushed out.

We completed a number of upgrades to the infrastructure as well as doing a lot around security in the last couple of years with regards to protecting our data. We did a big upgrade with Network Applicance on our storage in 2008. It's typical IT projects that you will see anywhere - I'd be surprised if it was hugely different.

How often do you travel with the racing team?
I pretty much never go to the races or tests. My role is based at the factory. I travelled 30 times last year. for things like the Dubai IDC summit.

What tasks does the IT team have on-site?
When we arrive at any site, anywhere in the world, it's an empty garage so you start with nothing. My guy will run all the cables as soon as he arrives, fire up all the servers that are in the back of the trucks - or if we've flown to Bahrain, for example, the servers will be in big racks at the back of the garage. We do the software upgrades to ensure that whatever code has been deployed at that event is on the servers and has been tested.

It's important to test the infrastructure and test the telemetry so that when they fire the car up, they can watch the data flow and make sure everything is working.

Through the race weekend, the technician monitors the system to make sure there are no issues and that all the telemetry is captured properly.

In light of events like the Stepneygate controversy, what additional steps have you take to secure your data?
The difficulty for F1 teams is that you have to allow engineers to work on the data away from the network. It would be much easier for me to protect the data if they only ever accessed it at the track or at the factory. But the reality is, they have to be able to use it when they are away.

Within the confines of that, we do what we can. Security specialists would say, "Don't let them use the data at all." We have to be realistic. We have a taken a number of steps since the spying a few years ago. I will not talk about all of them publicly - we were already doing quite a lot in terms of protecting our intellectual property going out.

What we weren't looking at so much was trying to stop other people's intellectual property coming in. We are doing more around that now with the technology that's available. A lot of what we brought in after all of that happened was more about people - bringing in HR principles that more directly made it clear to people that when we hired them, we don't want them to bring anything.

Within our budgets and working principles, there's no way we're going to be 100% sure that no one can take data out. All we can do is create a culture that says: "This is wrong."

That's now evident in F1 and it wasn't before. It was probably acceptable in F1 that if somebody moved teams, you kind of expected that they may take some data with them. It's now clear to everybody that intellectual property belongs to the team and not to individuals.

Does IT get involved in policing data or is it an HR responsibility?
I never really wanted IT to be the police of the company's data. That becomes partly inevitable. We don't do it from within IT - it's HR and director driven. We work very closely with the directors to determine what level they want us to go to, how far they want us to go. We work with HR in terms of what's appropriate and then put tools in place to help that.

Yes, we have to be involved in it but I'm keen that we're not the ones that are making decisions about what's acceptable and what's not.

Will you collaborate with teams from other IT departments to exchange information and best practice?
There is no contact between the teams at this level. There is at technical group level and FOTA with the team managers, but the IT level does not engage in contact.

Is this par for the course?
GH: It's just the history of F1, isn't it? We are all very secretive. I've worked with the IT director of Honda a few times. He did an assessment some years ago and got several teams to respond - but he had to be so careful to make all the teams anonymous so they couldn't tell who each other were. There's a culture of secrecy.

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