"It’s impossible to maintain a presence as a modern company without technology that enhances productivity, encourages collaboration and streamlines costs." — Chris West, IT Director, NanoString.
May 29 2014

Newly Minted Public Companies Focus on Infrastructure

Whether a biotech company or a web startup, companies view the need for a fortified tech infrastructure as pivotal when emerging from an IPO.

Last year was a busy time for biotech company NanoString Technologies.

“In a few short months we went public, got our FDA and ISO approvals and modernized our technology infrastructure,” says NanoString IT Director Chris West.

In preparation for the initial public offering, West and his team virtualized the Seattle company’s entire back-end environment with a VMware Acceleration Kit and vSphere with Operations Management deployment. The IT staff also installed an EMC VNX 5300 Series storage area network and Data Domain backup system. The new SAN sped up the company’s ability to provision servers, while the backup system boosted storage capacity and redundancy.

They then integrated the virtualized infrastructure, SAN and backup system with the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. By doing so, West says, NanoString’s teams could more effectively manage its core biotech products.

The company creates tools to let ­scientists perform genomics research and also has developed an in vitro ­diagnostic test for breast ­cancer, called Prosigna, which ­requires ­adherence to stringent quality-control systems and processes.

“We use a large set of electronic documents, both in manufacturing and throughout the company, that need to be accessible to our employees 24/7, anywhere in the world,” says Mary Tedd Allen, NanoString’s vice president of manufacturing. “The main reason for the virtualization upgrade was to provide the company with that uptime capability for document management and other internal systems.”


Percentage of IT directors who intend to use external cloud services to boost storage capacity

SOURCE: “IT Priorities for 2014” (TechTarget, January 2014)

When to Updgrade Your IT Infrastructure

NanoString’s timing for the infrastructure upgrade makes good business sense, points out Mike Gould, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ capital markets practice. An IPO is an opportune time to push a company forward, and that often includes a technology refresh, Gould says. Furthermore, there are many new obligations businesses face when they go public, such as monthly accounting ­requirements and financial reporting, which are tasks that require well-implemented and ­sufficient back-end technology.

“From a company’s perspective, an IPO is also a time when there’s extra money around to ­invest in infrastructure,” he adds. “Top management recognizes that now that the ­company is public, it can’t tolerate the website ­being down for half a day or any major IT security issues.”

Once NanoString committed to going public, CEO Brad Gray made it clear that he wanted the technology push to continue with an upgrade of the company’s communications backbone and network systems.

The IT team essentially rebuilt its networking infrastructure from the core out. The IT staff installed Cisco Systems Catalyst 4500 switches in the data center and Cisco Catalyst 2950 switches in wiring closets at the main office and the company’s second office a block away.

“The new networking infrastructure was a really big deal for us,” West says. “Before we deployed the new Cisco gear, we were working with equipment where I would have to unscrew the cabinets and fix the switches with a soldering gun.”

During the second phase of the network upgrade, the company ­deployed a Voice over IP phone system and video conferencing services.

Rapid Expansion, Rapid Response

Other companies on the verge of going public take a slightly different tack. For personal web development company Wix, which went public last November, a robust technology infrastructure was a top priority from the very beginning.

“Before we began the IPO ­process, we were already serving tens of ­millions of users around the globe, so our business model, security, ­reliability and processes were already well-documented and proven long before the IPO process began,” says President and Chief Operating Officer Nir Zohar.

Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, with offices in several international cities, including San Francisco and New York, Wix built its storage system out of ­commodity cluster servers and architected a scalable system that let it expand as it grew by adding more servers to its distributed servers array, Zohar says. The plan worked — Wix continues to use that storage strategy to manage what has grown into petabytes of data.

“The system still supports our global operations and infrastructure, of which the United States is our largest market,” Zohar says. Today, the Wix user base has grown to 46 million worldwide.

A Helping Hand from CDW

There’s no question that NanoString needed the infrastructure revamp that the IPO set in ­motion, says IT Technician Tyler Pittman.

But the IT team also needed an assist with the network planning, given the tight time frame for the deployment and new services that the company wanted to add, says Steve Maus, a system and network administrator at NanoString.

He says CDW — from which NanoString bought the networking, wireless and VoIP equipment — brought in several CCIE (Cisco-Certified Internetwork Experts) engineers to help redesign the network from the ground up. By carefully planning new IP ­address schemes, virtual LANs and Access Control lists, the IT team worked closely with the CCIE engineers to ­ensure the upgraded infrastructure would scale as NanoString continues to grow.

“We migrated our entire network and communications system to a whole new platform almost overnight. It was a lot to take in,” Maus says. “But the CDW engineers didn’t leave until they were satisfied that we could take over the system ourselves.”

Today, a dozen Cisco Aironet ­access points deployed throughout the two offices deliver fast and reliable 802.11n connectivity to NanoString users. Employees also have new VoIP phones, a mixture of Cisco 6945 and 8945 videophones, to take advantage of the new wireless network’s speed and capacity.

“Before we upgraded our network, we used to walk around the office and ask people if they had any large network file transfers running,” Pittman says. “We were constantly watching the network. I don’t think a single day went by where our users didn’t complain about the lack of adequate wireless connectivity and network capacity.”

Now, West says, employees are much happier with the technology and IT team. “Everyone loves the new phones, the wireless and the ­conference systems.”

The video conferencing system in particular delivered a near-immediate return on investment, he notes. “Many of our executives fly back and forth to Boston and San Francisco,” West says. “A number of meetings they now do via video conference. That saves us spending money on plane flights.”

Between the network overhaul and the infrastructure upgrade, the IT team will also improve its management ­capabilities, Maus adds. NanoString has been able to bring both its document control system and Microsoft Exchange services in-house, and it leans less on cloud services, he says.

The IPO let the IT team deliver on its vision of NanoString as a cutting-edge biotech company — living up to the expectations of employees, customers and business partners.

Rick Dahms

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