Sensis to re-platform cloud workloads onto more native AWS services

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Sensis to re-platform cloud workloads onto more native AWS services

Kicks off 'Cloud 2.0' strategy.

Sensis is implementing a ‘Cloud 2.0’ strategy, re-platforming workloads to run on more native AWS services and embracing models like serverless that didn’t exist when it first went cloud-only.

Enterprise technology manager Robert Marino told iTnews that the cloud space had “moved very, very quickly” since Sensis had first migrated its on-premises environment into the cloud.

iTnews first revealed Sensis’ three-year transformation to a cloud-only operating model late last year. 

At that time, the transformation was characterised as a move into predominantly AWS and Salesforce; however, it can now be revealed that the move to Salesforce pre-dated the cloud-only transformation, which was focused purely on uplifting the company’s IT infrastructure.

Marino said that prior to 2015-16, Sensis “had about 3500 servers” hosted out of five of its own data centres.

“[The cloud transformation] started as a cost-cutting exercise to reduce our data centres, but quickly changing to 'why not move all our platforms over?'” Marino said. 

“It was a big move. We had five data centres at the time, reducing down to no data centres and everything in AWS or a cloud-hosted platform.

“Everything from our backend internal corporate systems right through to customer-facing websites and data warehousing and data management all now live in our AWS environment.”

A handful of other workloads live elsewhere: mail is in Office 365, while identity services are managed via Okta.

Marino said the initial cloud-only migration was an 18-month program of work for a transition team of around 30 staff.

AWS’ cloud services were nowhere near as expansive in 2015 as they are today, affecting some of Sensis’ choices and timing of the migration of different workloads.

“There was a lot of trial and error,” Marino said.

“There was a couple of products that kicked off and we went 'that's not really going to work for us'.

“Where the product may have been immature at the point of time of selection, we looked at [product and company] roadmaps ... to work out where they were going to be in the next 12-18 months. 

“That was critical to those [early] selections, because at that point in time, there was a lot of development in those cloud-hosted platforms.”

Sensis is now looking to switch out or shift some workloads onto newer services that weren’t available when it first went cloud-only.

“For us now, the focus is what we're calling our ‘Cloud 2.0 strategy’,” Marino said.

“For us, it's [now] more around cost management, and moving to serverless, Docker and Kubernetes in our AWS environment, so there's a lot of re-platforming of what was moved over in that first round.”

On a practical level, that is likely to mean more workloads running on AWS-native services.

“When we moved over, there were a lot of bespoke builds to cater for some deficiencies in AWS' offerings, but as they're releasing more and more services daily, we’re moving to as many native services as possible,” Marino said.

“A lot of the time, there were some either backend processes that had to be modified or changed to cater for some of those deficiencies in those [early] cloud platforms.”

A by-product of running more natively in AWS cloud is that Marino expects the company to be able to automate and optimise its cloud environment to a greater extent.

“It means that we're able to use a lot more automation services, because we've got the bespoke roadblocks out of the way and just using as much native as possible,” he said.

“A lot of the work is around improving our pipelines and our ability for devs to deploy on-demand. 

“The idea is that we're trying to get the cloud team out of the way of the business so they can develop and deploy as quickly as they need to, to get products to market.

“These days, speed to market is critical to being successful in this industry so reducing - where possible - [developers’’] reliance on infrastructure teams to get products in the cloud and into market as quickly as possible [is important].”

In general, Marino is expecting re-platforming and infrastructure services refreshes to occur more often in the future.

“In your traditional on-premises environment, you had a three-to-five year lifecycle of a product.

“That's now dramatically turned, and we’re basically now looking at revisiting those platforms year-on-year and looking at selecting those best of breed platforms.”

Overhauling identity services

Identity services was one of the technology capabilities that had to be transitioned to a cloud-hosted platform during the initial transformation.

Pre-transformation, Sensis ran two different identity platforms: Ping Identity for the customer-facing part of its environment, and SailPoint to authenticate internal staff.

Sensis managed 100,000 customer identities and 2000 staff identities. 

SailPoint pre-dated Ping Identity, but was incompatible with Salesforce - which now runs most customer-facing parts of Sensis’ directories businesses - requiring investment in a second identity platform.

“We're quite heavily down the Salesforce route with our CRM systems,” Marino said.

“We had the staff identity platform to start with, and that didn't have that integration with Salesforce, so then another tool needed to be selected at that point in time to work from a customer perspective with our Salesforce platform.”

Marino said both products were complex and expensive to maintain. 

“Any configuration changes or functionality that we wanted to add required asking the vendor in, scoping out programs of work and making pretty decent investments in minor changes that we had to have to the platforms,” he said.

When Sensis went cloud-only, it also wanted to re-platform identity services to run in the cloud.

Marino said one of the internal mandates that came with the cloud-only transformation was that the internal IT team be able to maintain platforms as much as possible.

The company also took the opportunity to consolidate customer and staff identities to a single identity platform.

“We didn't want to maintain multiple platforms again,” he said.

Sensis brought in Okta, initially running a proof-of-concept managing staff identities before expanding the proof to the customer-facing environment as well.

“It was very evident that Okta was going to be a really easy tool to support,” Marino said.

“Internal staff were able to support the platform and straightaway start building some automation and some workflow straight out-of-the-box.

“It didn't require a lot of complex skill sets - we were able to move some of those functions down to our first-level support staff on the service desk, whereas previously you needed your third-level high skilled engineers to be able to do some of these basic functions in these identity platforms.”

Sensis took four months to migrate off its existing identity platforms and onto Okta. It performed the cutover ‘big bang’ in the 2016-17 Christmas/New Year shutdown period.

Skinning Okta

The company had some initial challenges around skinning Okta with its own branding, though Marino said the problems had since been resolved with newer native functionality in Okta.

“Any correspondence or landing pages that we wanted the customer to view or see, such as password reset correspondence emails, instead of it being branded potentially as just straight Okta we wanted it branded as the business unit that was dealing with that customer entity,” Marino said.

“At that time, you couldn't do specific customer branding, so we had to build some inhouse application to do that ‘middle man’ type branding functionality so that we could send emails out as Yellow [Pages] or as White [Pages], whereas now we're able to use the native functionality out of the tool to cater for that.”

Branding was important particularly as consumers became more security conscious.

“One of the things we found when we first did the pilot with some of the customers was that they were wary of the correspondence they were receiving because at the time, they didn't understand where it was coming from,” Marino said.

“Rightly, people have become more conscious around emails that they receive around password resets and things like that, which is a good thing to see in the industry. 

“So it really does make that branding functionality really crucial.”

Faster on-boarding

One of the ongoing advantages of using Okta is that the business can quickly put authentication around new services or platforms it wants to launch.

“Now that we've gone to cloud-only, part of the business culture now is to consume more PaaS [platform-as-a-service] offerings,” Marino said.

“Being able to integrate our customer platform into those PaaS offerings very quickly now has meant that we're able to get products to market a lot quicker than what we previously were able to. 

“Something that typically would have been a six-to-eight month program of work to get a new product into the organisation - getting it developed, getting the vendor engaged, and then being able to go to market - has reduced to a six-to-eight week cycle.

“We typically now look at about a two-to-four week sprint cycle to onboard any new services from a cloud offering provider.”

Self-service drives growth

Sensis move into enabling customers to self-service has paid dividends for the company.

This year it hit 150,000 customer identities under management - up from 100,000 only a few years ago.

“Like most digital organisations these days, customers want to be able to engage with the organisation when they feel [like it] and when they want,” Marino said.

“Having that self-service functionality and giving customers that ability to service their products whenever they want is where we've seen that growth in customers.”

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