Hopping aboard the cloud
- 05 June, 2014 15:17
How three very different organisations - Open Universities Australia, Les Mills, and Boeing - are using cloud in their operational environments.
Open Universities Australia: Total cloud coverage
Acting CIO at Open Universities Australia (OUA), Anthony Russo, claims his organisation experimented with every flavour of every type of service provisioning a CIO can think of before arriving at the public cloud.
The educational institution began by trialling hosted services, before moving to a private cloud environment in 2012. Today, it is looking to move all core services onto the public cloud, and has about 70 per cent of its environment with Amazon Web Services (AWS).
The transition from on-premise to public cloud was the inevitable outcome of rapid commercial expansion, which has driven up infrastructure requirements by as much as 30 per cent year-on-year, Russo explains.
“In our first year, we shifted premises and data centre, but with that kind of growth it was difficult to keep up with scaling requirements,” he says.
“We used all the latest technology on the market to try and stay within an in-house environment, but it wasn’t sustainable. To move the next level up would have meant a new data centre, a new building with multiple power generators, and multiple Internet links and it was just too expensive.”
OUA trialled a hosted environment but again found the set-up wasn’t flexible enough. “Every time we needed to add a server to the pool, we had to buy, it was a 4-6 week wait for delivery and it took too long,” Russo said. “We needed to be more agile and in our speed to market.”
OUA transitioned to a private cloud in 2012, cutting down server procurement time from six weeks to 5-7 days. The private cloud option OUA sourced from NextGen Group, Infoplex, also offered the benefits of third-party data centre management and scale, as well as built-in disaster recovery and the option to use dedicated or shared servers. The only work to be done was around connecting the primary and secondary data centres, Russo says.
“There was also some inherent security coverage for things like a denial-of-service attack that addressed that side for us,” he says.
Public cloud was not on the table at the time, mainly because OUA wanted to avoid latency issues with an overseas datacentre. However AWS’s decision to launch operations in Sydney prompted the university to re-evaluate once more.
“AWS looked good, we decided to trial the platform with our new business offering, Open 2 Study,” Russo explains. “We built the entire solution with Amazon’s help. In the Amazon cloud you don’t have any private servers, you can’t customise, and you have to use their way of architecting a solution. But if you do that, you get all these additional benefits.”
Among these are automatic disaster recovery, high responsiveness to growth and provisioning, autoscaling capabilities, and more resilient cyber security. OUA outgoing CIO, Michelle Beveridge, says AWS also provided a security expert to talk to the OUA team and board, who had been raising security questions, to allay any data fears about the move to a public cloud environment.
In addition, public cloud offered the ability to pay by the hour for usage, not per month or as part of a multi-year agreement, as was the case in hosted and private cloud environments, Russo says.
After its initial move to public cloud in 2012, OUA launched the new Open Training Institute product line, which it also opted to run on AWS. Russo then started using the Salesforce cloud and moved CRM to a SaaS environment.
A common CIO concern when pushing critical infrastructure onto the public cloud is the ability to be able to switch providers or retrieve assets. Russo says this wasn’t an issue for OUA as it had already conducted a trial of getting on and off the private cloud. It has a copy of its data elsewhere for backup and retrieval purposes.
To avoid lock-in, OUA has also written in the ability to get on and off cloud services into its partner agreements. “We are not afraid to move away, depending on what the solution is and if it fits with the business solution and strategy,” Russo adds. “This is working for us now, but who knows what the future will bring.”
OUA is now working with AWS to transition the group’s core ERP platform onto the cloud. According to Russo, the challenge has been that legacy apps are not designed to work across a single cloud-based infrastructure stack.
“It’s in the pilot stage but is looking promising and passing the load tests so far, so we could end up 100 per cent Amazon,” he says.
“What we’d really like in future is a cloud with offerings of AWS, but also Salesforce. What Amazon gives you is cloud-based solutions at an infrastructure level with some applications in there, but if you add in any other applications like PeopleSoft, it comes with the licensing implications of that solution.
“We want a scalable solution from top to bottom. AWS is a good point for us right now, but we’d like a mix of the two.”
Also on the cards is virtualising desktops and telephony services and moving those into the cloud. This will lower resource overheads and allow the team to focus on bigger business imperatives. “All we’d have to do is light management of the technical stack and spend our time on much more productive, business-related stuff,” Russo says.
But he admits OUA is hindered by ongoing “licensing issues” and the fact that many software providers are still not supporting the flexibility to ramp up and down services. “Technically, I can build anything in the cloud, the thing that’s preventing me is the licensing,” he says.
While cloud has been a big win for agility, a side benefit has been the positive change in IT’s skill set and focus. Beveridge says OUA has needed more developer and DevOps skills in-house to better utilise the cloud, and retrained existing staff to do the job.
“There has been this fear among infrastructure and systems managers about losing their jobs to cloud, but by retraining them it actually makes them more marketable,” she comments. Russo also spends less time working on the plumbing, and can focus on more business-oriented and strategic work.
“Cloud is a good story for IT infrastructure managers; don’t be afraid of this stuff,” Beveridge adds. “For Anthony, it’s given him the chance to build his skill set and now I’m leaving OUA, to take on the CIO’s role.”
Next up: Les Millls - email, Office and SharePoint in the cloud
Les Mills - email, Office and SharePoint in the cloud
“Cloud? I don’t really like the term. It has a lot of mystique around it,” says Aaron O’Brien, CIO of Les Mills International (LMI). “It makes it seem intangible, and many businesses do not like things that are intangible.
“In reality, if you look at email in the cloud, it is there, sitting in some data centre in Singapore, so it is not in the cloud. Because of that, I was not looking at moving to the cloud for the sake of it; I looked at the business need.”
LMI is the largest provider of branded group fitness and training programs, used in 15,500 clubs and gyms in more than 80 countries. It has more than 100,000 certified instructor guides, as well as 1000 trainers, 100 of them in the United States.
In the past two years, O’Brien has moved the company’s email, Office and SharePoint into the cloud. The company has also implemented a sales, club and portal for its instructors on cloud-based development platforms.
The business case for the move started when O’Brien was presented with the cost of upgrading LMI’s SAN every year, and putting a restriction on the mailbox sizes. “Fundamentally, I never believed in restricting users of mailbox sizes,” he says. “I know it is costly, but everything I do is about the user experience.
“I was presented with a cost to upgrade every year if we archive,” he says, referring to the original proposal by Origin IT, which managed LMI’s infrastructure. The vendor also provided options like putting another Exchange Server in the US to serve LMI’s global offices.
“I went up the white board and wrote, ‘US$25 a month a person, 25 gigabyte inbox and unlimited archives’. You have to beat that and come back another two weeks and we will look at it. Otherwise, we are going to move to [Microsoft] Office 365.
“I believe that is the only way we can run our ever-expanding networks across the world cost effectively and from a user experience point of view.”
Origin IT took on the migration to Office 365, but O’Brien says a challenge was getting a local reference organisation. LMI also wanted to move quickly because LMI was experiencing Exchange outages and other issues.
Today, LMI has email, SharePoint and Lync working together. “It really opened up how we communicate,” he says. Lync provides instant messaging and free voice and video calling from any device and has been very useful particularly in the US, where LMI has remote users in different states.
“The way we can collaborate is just fantastic; it has really changed the way we work,” O’Brien says.
Explaining to the board
O’Brien did not use the word ‘cloud’ when he explained to the board why they had to decommission the on-premise server and move to Office 365.
Instead, he explained it this way: “We have a Microsoft product Exchange. It is like a telephone exchange or a mail exchange and it holds all of our mail. And it is going to cost us X amount to resolve the issues staff are complaining about.
“We are going to use somebody who provides a service that is more specialised, and move forward redundancy and infrastructure, maintenance and support. They are going to move it directly to their data centre in Singapore, which is hosted by Microsoft.
“What we are doing is a hosted service by Microsoft, so there is no one better in the world who could manage it.”
There was no argument, O’Brien says. “If I used the world cloud, there would have been a different discussion.”
LMI is also using ‘as-a-service’ technologies in other areas of the business. This includes a self-service portal based on Salesforce.com for the 15,500 clubs to manage instructors.
The portal has been rolled out in one of LMI’s US offices and holds a number of applications that allow instructors to register and go through a certification process. As part of that process, instructors have to film themselves teaching a class and submit that video for assessment.
Online, these all come together to create an instructor profile. Once instructors have passed the assessment, they are affiliated with a club to teach. Through this portal, they can also buy the quarterly release of fitness videos.
LMI is also using another service-based application, Box.com, to produce its videos. After filming, footage is turned into two products: A physical DVD and a digital product that can be downloaded, he says. For this, LMI uses Box.com.
“It enables us to keep the business moving forward while we are looking for longer-term solutions,” he says.
By providing it as a service, the instructors can also get the latest material, and the company does not have to consume huge amounts of plastic and incur shipping costs. “My CEO is incredibly environmentally conscious,” O’Brien adds, “and we have an environmental policy around all the hardware we buy”.
Boeing: Flying ahead with public and private
At the recent Interop event, Boeing's chief cloud strategist, David Nelson, outlined a couple of ways the aircraft manufacturer is not only using the public cloud, but combining that with on-premises virtualised workloads to create a hybrid environment.
The results are applications that Nelson says run more efficiently, are less expensive and serve the needs of Boeing better than if the company had done it all in-house.
Nelson first described an application the company has developed that tracks all of the flight paths that planes take around the world. Boeing’s sales staff use it to help sell aircraft showing how a newer, faster one could improve operations. The app incorporates both historical and real-time data, which means there are some heavy workloads.
“There’s lots of detail and analysis,” he says. It takes a ‘boatload’ of processing power to collect the data, analyse it, render it and put it into a presentable fashion.
The application started years ago by running on five laptop computers that were synced together. They got so hot running the application that measures needed to be taken to keep them cool, Nelson said.
Then Nelson helped migrate the application to the cloud, but doing so took approval from internal security, legal and technology teams.
In order to protect proprietary Boeing data the company uses a process called ‘shred and scatter’. Using software supported by a New Zealand firm, Greenbot, Boeing takes the data it plans to put in the Cloud and breaks it up into the equivalent of what Nelson called puzzle pieces.
Those pieces are then encrypted and sent to Microsoft Azure's cloud. There it is stored and processed in the cloud, but for anything actionable to be gleaned from the data, it has to be reassembled behind Boeing's firewall.
That’s not the only Boeing app hosted in the cloud. Nelson, who previously served as director of service oriented architecture or SOA at Boeing, described a second application that uses Amazon Web Services Cloud, along with on-premises Boeing resources to create a hybrid application.
It's basically a toolbox app that allows mechanics around the country to research, conduct and verify maintenance and repairs. The Digital Toolbox app combines data that Boeing hosts itself about its own planes, but Nelson said the real innovative part is the work the company has done to integrate repair information from other aircraft manufacturers.
The application automatically routes the users to data either inside Boeing’s data centres if it’s there, or to AWS Cloud if it’s information from another airline. “It's seamless to the end user, but it provides all the functionality they need,” Nelson said.
It’s been a success, Nelson said, because many of the big airline companies work with multiple aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, but they can go to Boeing to get the repair and Toolbox information from a variety of manufacturers.
These applications took years to develop and many different approvals within the company, Nelson said. It’s still a challenge, to get cloud applications perfect, he said after his presentation.
To get both the technical deployment of the application perfected as well as the legal, regulatory and security assurances in place is not easy.
But, if completed it can create efficiencies and open up new products and services for companies.