CIO interview: Colin Rees, IT director, Domino's Pizza

The pizza delivery chain's IT director Colin Rees talks about its journey to cloud computing and the challenges of BYOD and IT consumerisation

“I tend not to follow trend for trend’s sake,” says Colin Rees (pictured), IT director at Domino’s Pizza.

This sums up the web veteran’s IT strategy – keep up with new technology trends, but when it comes to actual implementation, understand what works best for the organisation and make a slow transition.

“It is important to learn early and build the knowledge early,” he tells Computer Weekly. 

“That way it is easier for everyone in the organisation to adapt to the new technology. And that’s why at Domino’s we don’t have a people issue or cultural issue towards IT,” adds Rees.

His cautious and calculated approach to IT is telling in the company’s use of cloud computing services. 

Taking a low-risk path to cloud adoption

In 2011, when cloud was still a nascent term, Rees said the company was investigating it as an option, but at the time he found it hard to see how Domino's could deliver the service levels required of it through the public cloud.

But as the technology matured and its benefits became more apparent, Rees opened himself up to it. “Cloud computing is an important technology, and we have started our cloud journey, but we want to build our experience and understanding of it in a low-risk way,” he says.

The low-risk strategy included using infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) cloud platforms for testing and development applications first. These applications are not front-facing, and hence should they break down during the cloud trial, the pizza chain’s day-to-day digital ordering service would not be affected.

“Besides, our development team has to spin out very heavy workloads for testing environments, so it would be a good test of cloud," says Rees.

Rees's cloud strategy is clear – move 10% of the workload to the cloud, get comfortable, build up experience and then move some more

Shifting business-critical applications to the cloud

Having used cloud services this way for a good part of a year, Rees and the IT team are now looking to put critical workloads, such as web services, on the cloud infrastructure.

This is to take the advantage of cloud computing’s scalability and agility during peak business times.

The bulk of the pizza chain’s business takes place during weekend dinnertimes and Tuesdays when its popular “Two for Tuesday” promotional offer takes place. “We do a major part of our business for a couple of hours in a day,” says Rees.

To cater to the high demand for a few hours in the evenings and on weekends, the IT team has to provision for the peak performance workloads at all times, even when it is not used. This leads to an under-utilisation of its infrastructure and high costs – an area where cloud computing could bring substantial cost savings.

“Having used cloud in peaky development environment, we have seen some actual benefits, and we have now started thinking how to move critical workloads including web services, to the cloud,” he said.

His cloud strategy is clear – move 10% of the workload to the cloud, get comfortable, build up experience and then move some more.

“I can’t see why we cannot move as much as 80% of our total workloads to the cloud, including business-critical apps and mobile workloads,” he says. “But that is going to be a slow journey and a step-by-step transition.”

The pizza delivery chain selected Rackspace’s cloud infrastructure, because it will be able to migrate workloads more easily through open source cloud than if it were locked in to a supplier. Plus it was already using Rackspace for datacentre management services.

“We did not want separate suppliers for cloud and our in-house corporate infrastructure,” says Rees.

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Choosing an open source cloud

Rees joined Domino’s Pizza in 2010 from online retailer, where he was IT director. Prior to that, he spent several years at EasyJet, including as head of software delivery.

But with technologies such as cloud and IT consumerisation disturbing the enterprise IT ecosystem, is now the most exciting and challenging period of his career? “I wouldn’t quite say that. I spent years at easyJet, which was constantly innovating and pushing the IT boundaries,” he says.

For Rees, one of the biggest IT challenges was the move from a physical to a virtual infrastructure. “From buying our own servers and managing them, to virtualising our IT with Rackspace’s technology was a big change,” he says.

“But yes, now the pace of technological innovation is getting faster and faster and it is becoming impossible to keep up.”

Innovating to support customer engagement

Amid the current technological revolution, retailers such as Domino’s Pizza have been affected the most, with customers expecting to place a food order from any device at any time.

“It is not easy, but we have a great appetite to be innovative, and we have dedicated teams that come up with digital solutions to deliver better services to our customers,” says Rees.

Like all visionary CIOs, Rees’s ultimate objective is to make its IT and digital assets easy and intuitive for its customers: “I want our IT infrastructure to deliver a great service to our franchises and to our customers. I also want it to provide efficient services to the employees of Domino’s Pizza.”

“The advantage of making a slow transition is that it doesn’t look scary any more.”

Datacentre scalability and security

According to Rees, one of the greatest accolades of cloud is that it provides great scalability and yet it is invisible to the user. “We have two datacentres now, but with cloud we can have the capacity of 20 datacentres within no time,” he says.

Rees is also not fazed by cloud computing fears and security risks. “Part of the challenge is to separate reality and rumour,” he says. 

“The reality is that the security risks are high even in an internal datacentre if managed poorly. In fact, we have seen a big improvement in reliability and a reduction in downtime with cloud systems. Over time, the distinction between cloud and non-cloud will thin out,” he adds.

IT consumerisation challenges

But cloud is not the only technology in Rees’s mind at a time when more mobile devices are crowding the consumer market and bring your own device (BYOD) is a growing trend.

We have seen a big improvement in reliability and a reduction in downtime with cloud systems

Colin Rees, Domino's Pizza

“BYOD is inevitable; it is a symptom of the changing demography of the society,” he says. 

With more than half of its business coming from online orders, Domino’s Pizza has released ordering apps for Apple, Android and Windows 8 operating systems.

“We have just launched a new iPad app – our third most significant mobile upgrade this year,” says Rees. The new app allows users to design and make their own pizza with a visual pizza builder called “Pizza Chef”, and receive deals and offers while making the order.

“By next year, you will see even more mobile offerings from us, but we have still got plenty of work to do.” he concludes.

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