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British Gas will move more of its business to the public cloud from 2017, as part of a drive to cut costs and increase its business agility in the face of new entrants to the energy market.
Speaking at the Cloud World Forum conference taking place in London, British Gas business solutions director David Trice said cloud has an important part to play in ensuring the energy supplier’s operations are lean and mean enough to withstand new competitive threats.
Such threats include Google, whose Nest home thermostat technology is a direct competitor to British Gas and its Hive Active Heating system, and Amazon, which is responsible for marketing other firms’ wares in the connected home space.
“How can we position a 200-year-old company to generate product and services to compete with Google and Amazon?” said Trice.
Additionally, British Gas is also under pressure to ensure its service offerings stack up with what the rest of the energy market is offering.
“We offer a commodity in energy and gas," said Trice. "It doesn’t change colour, quality or shape if you switch to another supplier, so we have to differentiate on service, product quality and price.”
With the company set to announce a tweak to its business strategy at the end of July 2015, having lost hundreds of thousands of customers in recent years to competitors offering cheaper deals, Trice revealed the firm's cloud computing strategy will play an important role in it.
“One of the key things is going to be around leveraging the cloud for agile competitiveness and to reduce the cost base of the business,” he said.
It’s a move that’s being hurried along by the fact the firm only has a couple of years left to run on its current datacentre.
“Our datacentre provision and managed hosting environments will run out in 2017, and we’ll have to make choices about some of our big applications and where they live. Our aim is to put them in the public cloud where at all possible,” said Trice.
Uncovering shadow IT
Moving to the cloud is a journey that formally started for British Gas in summer 2014 with the launch of its cloud programme, which initially sought to address the fact many of its departments were using unsanctioned off-premise services.
As such, initial investigations revealed some departments had been using software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications for seven years, or had been leaning on public cloud services from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google for some time already.
“We found cloud was happening in our organisation for a while, but we weren’t ready for it,” said Trice.
Rather than clampdown on these shadow IT deployments, he set about finding a way to bring all of these services together so the whole business could benefit.
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The programme's aim, therefore, was to address all of the reasons why these departments had seen fit to bypass IT to procure cloud services, while finding a safer, more responsible way of providing access to them.
“What we set out with the cloud programme was to deliver services that were fast and easy to set up, but done so in a responsible fashion,” Trice said.
“Previously we were nibbling at the edges of the cloud and not addressing it in a very proactive way. This isn’t about us introducing new technology, this is about us being successful with it,” he added.
As part of this work, British Gas has created what Trice terms a “public cloud incubator” to help the company work through the technical and regulatory challenges it will face when moving more applications and services there from 2017.
In preparation, it’s given the green-light for a handful of “trailblazing” projects, whereby developers well-versed in using the .Net programming language are encouraged to experiment with creating new services and apps in Microsoft’s Azure public cloud.
The company has also moved some of its test and development activities to the AWS public cloud, and has drawn on its infrastructure to run an iPhone app called Pulse for engineers to use in the field.
Despite being one of the company's main sources of face-to-face contact with its customers, its engineers previously knew relatively little about the clients and properties they would turn up at, said Trice, an issue the introduction of Pulse has sought to address.
“Engineers can now pull up data on the customer on their doorstep using their iPhones, so they know exactly what utilities are serving the property and what that customer’s last complaint was,” he said.
“Instead of having to ask apologetically if they’re a British Gas customer, our engineers get to thank them for being a customer and the conversations we have as a consequence are massively different.”