Doing something funny in the cloud

IT leaders are well aware of the potential of the cloud, and some early adopters, such as Comic Relief, are already introducing cloud services into their IT strategy.

IT leaders are well aware of the potential of the cloud, and some early adopters are already introducing cloud services into their IT strategy.

But one of the challenges for CIOs who are looking to achieve the potential benefits of the cloud is the lack of reference points, best practices, key learnings or any proven points of value upon which they can build a business case.

One organisation that has valuable experience to share is the charity Comic Relief, which moved to a cloud environment to ensure that it could match the expectations of the public interested in and wishing to donate to Red Nose Day 2011, which took place on 18 March.

At a recent Computer Weekly roundtable debate, organised in association with Oracle, Comic Relief's head of future media and technology, Marcus East, told a group of senior IT leaders how his organisation had embraced the cloud to ensure the organisation's IT systems could meet the peak demand that makes Comic Relief one of the busiest websites in the world during the critical few days around the televised fundraising event, achieving more transactions per second than Amazon at its Christmas peak.

For this year's Red Nose Day, Comic Relief is using a cloud architecture to support its most critical system - its donations platform - which was responsible for raising £82.9m during the last event two years ago.

"We're a charity, and what we have is a perfect storm," said East.

"We need to have systems that are more scalable and larger than anything that typically exists, but I have a small team of people and we don't have any money to build systems that can support that level of business. So that perfect storm meant we had no choice but to look at cloud as a solution to our issues."

East added, "We've got to have a very scalable infrastructure where we can increase the capacity at relatively short notice and there is absolutely no way we could have achieved that ourselves if we had continued to have our own infrastructure managed by our team."

East said Comic Relief's donations platform was "a very sophisticated Oracle and Java stack" managed by hosting company Carrenza, to provide the charity with virtual resources that power its websites and other internal systems. Comic Relief is supported by 80 volunteers from different IT companies, including Oracle, Cisco and IBM, who have worked with the charity to make sure it has the right architecture in place and is ready for the campaign demand, which is likely to be unpredictable.

Relying on the cloud

East said one of the challenges of relying on the cloud was convincing his senior colleagues.

"When we first mentioned using the cloud, our finance director was saying, 'What you are telling us is that you are going to take our core system, the critical donations platform, and you're going to take it outside and put it in the cloud.'

"As you can imagine, that was a difficult challenge. But, clearly, the financial analysis makes that look more straightforward. The reality for us as an organisation is that flexibility is the key."

East continued, "Moving into the cloud as an architecture solution gives you a great deal of flexibility. The second challenge is around security: this is a system that delivers a huge number of transactions from the public, and it's going to be out in the cloud, not behind closed doors in the Comic Relief office.

"However, there are benefits in going out and working with a partner that is a specialist in supplying managed services that are secure and scalable - we actually have better security than if we were keeping things in-house ourselves."

Bill McCluggage, the deputy government CIO, asked East whether it was possible to define where the traffic surges would come from, especially as Red Nose Day offered new ways to donate, such as mobile phones and social media.

According to East, what surprised Comic Relief was how much the world had changed over the past two years.

"There are three things that have affected traffic for us," he said. "One is undoubtedly mobile channels. We are seeing that people are increasingly choosing to interact with us with a mobile device, particularly a younger audience.

"Social networks have also changed the way people view our content. Now a video goes out onto YouTube and people share it and that drives an incredible amount of traffic as people put it into Facebook, and tweet about it.

"The third component is our celebrity supporters. The other week Stephen Fry tweeted about our iPhone app and suddenly there were tens of thousands of people who wanted to interact with us. And that means one of the things we do have to look at in the future is not just capacity planning, but capacity management."

Harkeeret Singh, global head of energy and sustainable technology at Thomson Reuters, wanted to know if Comic Relief had experienced any kind of performance impact by going to the cloud, and what cost savings it may have achieved.

East said he thought Comic Relief had suffered no performance loss by moving to the cloud. But he said there could have been a negative effect had it not worked closely with its partners to find the best way to migrate into a cloud environment, ensuring it had the right performance, using, for example, the right metrics. If anything, performance had increased, he said.

Cost savings

In terms of cost savings, if Comic Relief had adopted a traditional approach to creating a successful platform, the cost of ownership would have been too great. So, East suggested, adopting a cloud-based approach had saved Comic Relief money as well as delivering a clear business case moving forward for the next five years.

Mike Bell, CTO at Jaguar Land Rover, pointed out that unlike working with a partner, when you are fulfilling a business need by using the cloud and buying a public cloud-based service, you become much more anonymous. East agreed, adding that using public cloud-based service providers could be "quite nerve-wracking".

"If you are talking about a situation where there isn't someone that you can phone, or there isn't an opportunity to hold somebody to a service-level agreement, you do have to think very carefully about whether that's the right solution," he said.

"Had Comic Relief attempted to architect the best solution itself and not taken advice from Oracle and Cisco, we may have created problem for ourselves. When you are trying to deliver something that's best in class, you've got to be prepared to trust your partner and take their advice on board."

Is the cloud challenge commercial or technical?

Mike Bell, CTO at Jaguar Land Rover, said that IT leaders considering adopting a cloud infrastructure may need to ask questions about what the cloud is able to deliver and what is the role of procurement in achieving that.

“While there are a huge amount of servers and capacity that can be brought, you are not simply provisioning unlimited capacity. The procurement side, the licensing, the way it’s costed, that doesn’t necessarily always marry up with what is sitting in the datacentre,” he said.

Ian McDonald, head of Infrastructure and cloud at News International suggested that “everything is elastic other than the database”, and wondered how organisations go about making their database scalable.

But Michael Bischoff, IT director at LCH Clearnet, said that the biggest challenge of the cloud is that suppliers will have to match cost to consumption.

“For many vendors, it is a very significant challenge to their revenue model. I don’t want to pay for what I don’t use. And I want to turn it off tomorrow and pay for it tomorrow. There are very few service providers today, and certainly no traditional service providers, that are prepared to face into that discussion today because it’s all about risk transfer and I don’t think we as an industry have faced into who owns the risk. I’ve love to be in a position where I could give Google all of my computer processing problem. But the reality is they’re not going to do that given the risk and liability that they bear. And the liability always rests with yourself. Google didn’t lose your data – you did,” he said.

Deputy government CIO Bill McCluggage said the commonly-cited analogy that the cloud is like buying electricity is the wrong model. He cited London’s bicycle hire scheme – the so-called “Boris bikes” - as a better example, because all the risk of implementation was taken by the supplier, and customers only pay when they use a bike, and only for as long as they use it. McCluggage said that model of “no upfront costs, no lock-in to volume and no lock-in to time” is what the public sector would like to see from its cloud suppliers.

Oracle’s senior director for strategic business, Steve Lamb, said many organisations are working out what cloud means to them, with issues around security, datacentre consolidation, the power of information in the business, and the importance being able to “move to a commercial model that says, ‘We want to be able to turn it on and we want to turn it off and pay for what we use’.”


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