Ryan, when did your cloud journey begin?
“From memory I got my first cloud ‘ask’ in about 2007 or 2008. At the time I was working with the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK on the National Programme for IT. My clients had been to a cloud provider’s conference and came back very enthused by what they’d heard. They were very innovative clients, and in this case, they wanted to take on everything the cloud offered, but mainly they wanted to save money.
“They particularly wanted to reduce the costs of new environments. At that time the environments took 12 weeks to set up – which I know in 2023 sounds horrific – but in 2007 we had it finely tuned, including the Capex cycle, racking the hardware etc. If you compare that to now, I could probably build the same thing in under an hour.
“This was the first time I had a client come to me and ask: “I want something I can spin up and spin down; I don’t want to pay for it when I don’t need it.” But while they were talking about cost, what they were really asking for was what the industry calls the -ILITIES.”
Tell us about the -ILITIES?
“Although my clients at the time wanted cost-reduction, I think the real benefits came in the -ILITIES… availability, extensibility, repeatability, reliability, scalability…
“All of those -ILITIES are now common in cloud language, but recently more and more have come out – interoperability, securability, usability, visibility. I’d also add flexibility, maintainability and portability as key considerations for cloud. Sustainability is another hot topic.
“Personally, I think achieving those -ILITIES is more important than cost-reduction. Cloud should be thought of in-terms of what it enables you to do, rather than what it saves you. For example, repeatability, which means you can scale instantly, without risk. Availability, which is vital for retail environments. And, maintainability, because cloud services and solutions can free your people from ‘grunt work’, enabling them to do higher-value work.
“I’d advise any retail CTO to think -ILITIES-first when they think about cloud.”
How have you seen cloud mature?
“Awareness, adoption, and trust in the cloud have all exploded in the past two decades. Hyperscale cloud providers like Google have been investing tens of billions in improving their solutions for many years. Smaller businesses just couldn’t invest at the same level, but the three bigger providers have grown the market with huge R&D spend which accelerated the conversation, and conversion. By 2018, I was already responding to OKRs and having conversations based on “cloud-first principles”. Now it’s exceedingly rare to get an RFI or RFP that doesn’t refer to cloud in some way.
“With adoption, there was some initial reluctance, including from the UK Government on security grounds, but if you look at the numbers the leading cloud providers are investing in security at a level that makes it very hard for a business to compete. As a result, retailers are asking, why compete when we can take advantage of that level of cloud investment?
“There are some challenges with cloud adoption, in the US for example due to rules and regulations, and in Africa where coverage isn’t quite there yet, but old arguments on security have been blown out of the water now. That means one of the few rationales for staying on-prem has been removed.”
What about cloud for retail?
“Cloud migration projects are increasingly common. Even retailers that have had contracts for ten or fifteen years for an on-premise solution are migrating. They’re transforming because of the benefits cloud can bring.
“We do still see RFIs and RFPs for clients that are looking for on-premises capability, maybe because its habitual in their business, maybe it’s the culture, maybe there’s been large investment in data centre or data room capability. These customers may just want to run software, but still want the option of being about to ‘see the kit’ by keeping their own on-prem hardware. There’s still a leaning towards wanting a virtual private cloud, with a segregation element, but overall retail has moved or is moving in one direction — to the cloud.”
What does cloud offer for retailers?
“Business continuity improves. Because of the way cloud services are structured, you might have three data centres within a region of three-to-five miles, each of which can continue as normal if something goes wrong with one of the other two. Of course, you are also multi-region with geographic separation in the unlikely event of an entire region failing. Information can be shared and replicated at high speed because it’s such a small area. You don’t have to worry about the old hardware issues; how do I transfer data, how big does a network cable have to be, how is my redundancy?
“Repeatability and reliability are other benefits. Infrastructure as code means you can build with comfort and confidence knowing that an environment you built today, and another one you build tomorrow, will be identical. It’s a cookie-cutter template capability, effectively ‘cloning, which makes it totally repeatable, and because it’s software defined environments, and not people defined environments, you don’t have the fear of people missing something or misspelling something, which can lead to a lot of problems. I’ve been there, infrastructure as code means I don’t have to go there again!
What about scalability?
“As an enterprise architect one of my biggest headaches was how do I size an environment for day one, for growth, or for peak? The only way to do that was with a spreadsheet frenzy, and in truth, all that effort was a best guess. If you’re guessing for sizing for Black Friday, or Christmas, misjudgement is a real risk.
“That problem still exists for on-prem based businesses. If they need to scale quickly, unless they have hardware sat there with spare capacity in a VM farm or a server farm, they could run into a problem where they need to scale quickly and they simply cannot do it.
“Hyper-scale cloud providers have an almost infinite scalability. We’ve done things in test and live environments where we’ve built large systems at scale, within an hour, and there’s never been a problem.”
“Agility is another core benefit. Retailers can now go into a cloud marketplace, buy a SaaS capability they’re interested in and try it immediately. AI tools, BI tools, data lakes – you can find it, try it, have a play with it. Thirty-day trials are normally offered so there’s no risk.
“It’s all about having the agility to change your business, and the pace of doing these things is insane. You can go in find something and immediately start using it. We had a small requirement recently, we didn’t want to code it ourselves, so we went onto the marketplace and found something. We were done within an hour and had it working in a morning.
“If anything, there’s too much choice. Google has 110 retail options. Customer-centricity, analytics, warehouse modernisation… just loads of capabilities that allow retailers to improve and become more profitable, with trial capability in minutes. A lot of CTOs and engineers like trying things, and the marketplace is a bit like giving a 10-year-old too much candy — they tend to get over-excited and want to experiment with everything.”
Why should a retailer use a service provider’s cloud capabilities?
“Most retail solution providers including Flooid are now offering some kind of cloud capability, and the best of these are based on multiple layers. You have your infrastructure layer, your middleware layer and then your applications software, which is where your solutions are, sitting on top. These layers are supported by automation and monitoring.
“This means that when we’re assuring our product, we’re not just assuring software, we’re assuring all the layers – everything in the build. We’re assuring how the operating system is deployed, how the middleware and applications software is deployed… the whole stack is an entire offering, rather than just the software. It’s a reference architecture. If you stay on-prem and change one of those layers, or mis-configure it, you do run into problems.
“The service provider with the cloud capability is thinking in a managed services way; how do I deploy and run this with no issues? How can I build it once, run it many ways? Tooling, R&D and automation are all configured and assured for the cloud-environment stack. The minute you take the applications software out of the stack, R&D and automation is a problem, because you’re essentially saying you’re building yourself – and that can compromise those -ILITIES I talked about earlier.
“If you’re adopting a service provider that’s cloud-focused, trying to take their applications software while staying on-prem is likely to give you some challenges. Think about the cost of replicating for the work they have already done. If a solution is three years-old, it’s likely the provider has invested 36,000 hours in perfecting the environment. Why re-do all that work yourself, when you can just take the work that’s already been done, knowing it’s going to work?”
Where next for cloud?
“It’s time for retailers to accelerate migration. We’re in the ‘transformation’ cloud era, where it’s a case of jumping in with two feet and using the cloud to configure everything. Now cloud isn’t just about hosting your solution, it’s about all the add-ons that are there. Workloads, services to run your database, reducing the pain and overhead of DBA. SaaS can take on much of that low-value, ‘tuning’ work that DBAs have previously generated – it can take on how data is persisted, encrypted at rest or transferred between data recovery and business continuity zones. In doing that you can free people to work at a much higher level.
“A second trend is sustainability. Each of the cloud providers is on a rapid sustainability journey. Renewable energy is a common goal, they are all looking at the efficiency of their data centres. Net carbon neutral is another target. Water positivity is another aspect, as is waste management, plus power usage effectiveness. They’re delivering something that’s great for business, but better for the planet too. And that’s a journey we at Flooid are proud to be a part of.”
++ Ryan discussed these topics and more during Experience Retail’s Cloud-Based Solutions: The Sky’s The Limit webinar.
Learn more about Flooid Cloud in Ryan’s top tips for cloud adoption blog, Keeping our heads in the cloud blog and Flooid Cloud Technology White Paper.