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How Globe Telecom is doubling down on cloud

The largest mobile operator in the Philippines has moved its legacy systems to the cloud and there is more to come as it looks towards deploying cloud radio access networks and cloud-native applications

Like many other mobile network operators in the world, Filipino telco Globe Telecom has been laying the technology foundation to support the demands of new 5G services.

Cloud computing has been a key component of that foundation, enabling Globe Telecom, which has over 90 million customers, to adapt to business demands at a much faster pace, according to its CIO and senior vice-president, Carlo Malana.

The telco, the largest in the Philippines, has moved most of its technology infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS). It has undertaken lift-and-shift migrations for legacy systems and is looking to develop more cloud-native applications.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Malana talks up the role of cloud in Globe Telecom’s digital transformation strategy, how it is building the tech talent it needs, and his vision of things to come.

With the transition towards 5G, many telcos are looking at transforming their technology infrastructure to support new 5G capabilities. Could you share more about Globe Telecom’s digital transformation strategy in that regard and the role of cloud on that journey?

Carlo Malana: Last year has really accelerated the focus on digital transformation, not only in 5G but in other areas as well. Fortunately for Globe, digital transformation has been going on for quite some time. It didn’t happen overnight and we’re still on this journey. I personally think the journey never ends. For example, you wouldn’t have been talking too much about containerisation a few years ago, but now you’re really adding that level of flexibility between different operational workloads.

Our journey started initially with looking at gaining the benefits of cloud – the ability to scale, adapt to business demands at a much faster pace, and to get away from the traditional bare metal methodology of having to forecast everything and just pray that you’re right, because if you’re wrong, you’re going to have long lead times. We still experience that, by the way, for some of our legacy systems.

The whole journey has been to get away from those sorts of environments to decrease our provisioning lead times, because with the pandemic situation and lockdowns, we couldn’t operate our stores. And so we had to serve our customers virtually, which increased the demand on our systems.

Fortunately, we could accommodate the growth in demand and provision more compute and storage from our cloud environments, which make up a significant part of our infrastructure. Having said that, we’re still on this journey as we have a complex IT environment with several hundred systems, and not all of them are getting the maximum benefits you can get from the transformation.

While we can still look for opportunities to decrease our latency with technologies like AWS Outposts, from an application perspective, we’re not really seeing the absence of a cloud region in the Philippines as a showstopper for some of our applications
Carlo Malana, Globe Telecom

For example, there are some systems on cloud that are not cloud-native because we’re still dependent on the application’s ability to adapt and take advantage of concepts such as being able to provision on the fly, as well as infrastructure-as-code, which we haven’t been able to apply in an operational manner yet. We’re still looking for additional capabilities, such as self-healing and being able to diagnose and automatically resolve issues as soon as we detect them.

There’s still so much more on the horizon, but I think the important message is that we’re well on our way in our journey. It takes fortitude and support, and one of the biggest supporters of our digital and cloud transformation is our CEO. You didn’t have to convince him. He was telling us to get our act together and keep moving forward. His support helped break down a lot of the barriers to adoption.

I understand that Globe has moved some legacy systems to AWS. Could you provide some colour on what has been done so far? Are these mostly lift-and-shift migrations or are you refactoring them into microservices?

Malana: In the beginning, a lot of that was lift-and-shift right because the key thing was balancing the lifecycle of an application, where we were in that lifecycle and the extent to which we wanted to refactor that application.

Globe is also on the journey of modernising several of our key systems, such as customer relationship management (CRM) that we use to support our customer base, who are mostly prepaid customers. We’re expecting to see the production version of our next-generation systems in the next few months.

So, the legacy systems were mostly lift-and-shift and what we got from that was that essentially, we no longer have the actual bare metal servers that we were running ourselves, but we still manually manage things like defining virtual machines.

However, with this window of opportunity, we are now able to move some major systems into a cloud-native, microservices-type infrastructure that will offer better resiliency and availability for our mission-critical applications.

We’re also looking forward to dynamically scale application resources in response to certain peak periods. In the past, we had to size resources based on peak periods with some headroom. But for much of the year, those resources would remain idle. And so, this is the biggest thing that we’re looking forward to – being able to properly size some of these environments and to take advantage of the characteristics of cloud.

What led you to eventually decide on AWS as your cloud partner? Do you also have a multicloud strategy?

Malana: Definitely. As with any large corporation, we have a strategy to mitigate risks. However, having said, the majority of our technology infrastructure is on AWS, which we chose to work with because of its culture and portfolio.

As a company that has been looking to be more aggressive and progressive in terms of our technology stack, we’d like to be associated with strategic partners that have similar mindsets. The other portion was who was available in which region and what products were available to us.

Other things that we looked at with AWS was the fact that they were willing to support us on other aspects of our transformation, such as training. One of the key things that we’ve been able to do, even in the past year, is that we’ve been able to certify our people and increase their competencies in cloud technologies. Having that support from AWS helped us accelerate our adoption.

We also looked at AWS as partners that we could work with on innovation projects. It could be as simple as using their DeepRacer programme to build our machine learning and artificial intelligence expertise.

It takes fortitude and support, and one of the biggest supporters of our digital and cloud transformation is our CEO. You didn't have to convince him. He was telling us to get our act together and keep moving forward
Carlo Malana, Globe Telecom

Some of the strategies that AWS has taken with open source also resonate very well with our strategies. For example, we were able to learn from them on how we could leverage open-source databases and other open-source technologies for our technology stack in a much more expedited fashion.

AWS doesn’t have a cloud region in the Philippines. How is that working out for Globe from a performance and latency perspective?

Malana: Unfortunately, there’s no global cloud provider that has an availability zone in the Philippines. The closest we all go to is typically Singapore and of course there are other Asia regions that we can use.

While we can still look for opportunities to decrease our latency with technologies like AWS Outposts, from an application perspective, we’re not really seeing the absence of a cloud region in the Philippines as a showstopper for some of our applications. It’s generally been acceptable and it’s not like we have to tap a datacentre in Oregon.

Still, from a redundancy standpoint, we’ve explored the option of having some of our applications be in an availability zone somewhere else on the other side of the planet. But certain applications were not meeting our performance criteria, so we had to stay within the Asia regions.

One of the emerging technologies in the telco space is cloud radio access networks (RAN). Is Globe looking into that and if so, how is AWS supporting its cloud RAN strategy?

Malana: We probably can’t talk too much about that, but one thing I can say is that we are. Like other telcos in the world, we are seeing convergence and the virtualisation of network functions. Right now, we’re trying to look at some of the simpler aspects of scaling convergence between the telco network and IT.

In fact, we work very closely with our network groups with regard to the way we deliver services for our customers. As an example, when customers purchase or top up their prepaid service or use their mobile data service, there are different “handshakes” between the network and IT. The fun part here is that some of these on the network side are on physical appliances, but they also have virtualised counterparts.

So, we are definitely looking at cloud RAN over the coming years and the possibilities of abstracting the physical layer and moving even more services into the cloud. We’ll have to start figuring out what are some of the key components that we can safely move, with reasonable confidence, into a public cloud infrastructure. At this point, we have some critical network functions that are already on the cloud. For example, a lot of our network monitoring is run on AWS. We’ve also started getting our network enterprise grade applications to run on AWS.

Telcos usually have a lot of technical debt, not just from the IT perspective, but also from the skills perspective. What’s the situation at Globe and how are you getting your IT staff to embrace a cloud-first mindset?

Malana: One of the key things that we focused on from an IT strategy perspective is developing and engaging our people. There’s a lot of focus on certifications, education and training. Some of them are self-driven, some of them are through formal programmes, and we recognise and reward our employees for their competency in emerging technologies such as cloud.

The other thing that’s part of the cloud mindset is DevOps. We’re looking at becoming more agile, and I think these concepts feed into each other – it’s hard to be agile if you’re still doing bare metal provisioning.

In terms of talent, there’s always a need for more. The way we supplement it is to work with partners, but at the same time we recognise that everyone wants people who understand cloud and cyber security. There’s a lot of demand for those talents in the market and our response is to build our own.

Last year, we launched a very successful cloud cadet programme. The theory was that if we took the best and brightest from across universities in the Philippines and gave them the right training in a corporate setting as opposed to an academic setting, they’re going to do great things for us.

The first bunch of cadets achieved 100% pass rates for three different cloud certification programmes from AWS. Some of them were able to meaningfully contribute and help build production applications and pioneer things such as supporting our virtual shareholder meeting.

Now that Globe has embarked on its cloud journey, what is your vision of things to come from a technical perspective? Do you see yourselves scaling down your existing datacentres?

Malana: I think we’re going to see more applications migrate to cloud and being more cloud native. From a datacentre perspective, I see us exploring datacentres at the edge and being able to leverage technologies such as Outposts so that we can bring processing to the edge and depend less on the latency of traversing the ocean.

We also want to leverage 5G launches, with Globe being one of the leaders in 5G. We launched our 5G network last year, and we have an aggressive roll-out schedule this year. I also see us taking advantage of other technologies like cloud gaming and being able to offer much more complex capabilities on a basic handset than otherwise would be possible.

The Philippines is not going to be a market for super advanced stuff like driverless cars, but I definitely see us being able to take advantage of things like cloud computing, cloud gaming and other new technologies that will be possible with the arrival of 5G.

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