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How We Moved Almost Everything to the Cloud: 5 Lessons

Companies that move to the cloud have a whole host of decisions, one of the first being whether to develop their own software on top of a cloud infrastructure or to attempt to customize an existing cloud service.

Aquent, a global staffing firm specializing in design and marketing professionals, decided to port its own back-office system in 2010, after successfully moving other information systems to the cloud. The company had already made the most obvious cloud choices, moving its e-mail system to Google and it phone system to a voice-over-IP service in early 2010, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the process.

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In September, 2010, the company made its most serious commitment to the cloud, completing the transition of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a custom application ported over to a Postgres database. While there have been challenges, the move paid off: The company has slashed its annual information technology expenditures by nearly half, from 4 percent of the company's expenses to 2 percent, Aquent CIO Larry Bolick says.

"There has been a major impact on the cost line for IT here," says Aquent CIO Larry Bolick. "It is not just the pure monthly bill from your telco... There have been a lot of process changes and a lot of organizational shifting of responsibilities."

The process changes, such a moving some IT support functions back into the business units, allowed the company to reduce its support staff. In addition, the outsourcing of its most support-intensive application, e-mail, helped reduce needed staff as well, he says.

Bolick and his team shared some lessons learned:

1. Sometimes custom is the only way

The choice to create its own custom software on top of a cloud infrastructure -- in this case Amazon's Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) --rather than customize an existing cloud service was a fairly simple decision.

As Aquent discussed its requirements with cloud providers, such as Salesforce, it became evident that Aquent could not provide the same services to its customers that it could with its homegrown ERP solution. On the ERP side, many vendors had no cloud solutions when the company was studying the issues in 2009.

"We asked cloud vendors if they knew anyone running custom ERP packages in a cloud environment and they could find no one," says Zach Hunter, vice president of software development for Aquent. "A lot of vendors could not even spell cloud when we were doing this."

While many companies sell cloud services to track and manage customers, Aquent's staffing business is based on providing better services, so the company's software development team decided to port its existing system and looked to host it on an infrastructure-as-a-service cloud.

2. Copy and paste is not so simple

To reduce latency and ensure maximum availability, Aquent maintained databases in colocation facilities in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet, the company feared that data maintained in those systems would quickly become fragmented, says Bolick.

"If you were in your office in Hong Kong, and you needed to find a resource for a specialty in Hong Kong, you would have to search the database in Sydney, but also the databases in New York and London," says Bolick.

The company hired technology-services firm Distributed Logic of Woburn, Mass. to create a solution, a multi-master database replication system that could synchronize data between the three operational databases.

3. Latency, consistency matters

With a global operation, latency in the cloud starts to matter tremendously.

"It becomes very difficult or nearly impossible to use a real-time application a continent away," says Mark Parsons, a lead developer with Distributed Logic, who worked on the Aquent project.

While the company has a standard three instances of its ERP system in the Americas, European and Asian markets, the flexibility of the cloud allows the company to add new instances as needed. It will likely add a fourth instance on the U.S. West Coast and may expand with a Japanese instance, says Aquent's Hunter.

Selecting Amazon as its cloud infrastructure provider allowed the company to quickly spin up new instances even in countries where the communications infrastructure and language are different.

4. Be prepared for outages

Moving to the cloud is not an automatic disaster recovery plan. Planning is required. While cloud services can improve availability, they can also result in outages that affect a large swath of businesses. The recent Amazon EC2 outage in North America is proof of the dangers.

In Aquent's case, its technology provider Distributed Logic created a multi-master replication system, so that Aquent's cloud infrastructure could be continuously updated amongst all three of its current zones in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The benefit of this infrastructure design became evidence during a recent outage. While Aquent was not affected by the North American Amazon outage, its infrastructure allowed it to avoid a 12-hour Amazon outage in Ireland that took the company's application server down in March, 2011. The company was able to point its European workers to the North American server while it quickly rebuilt the European server.

"Without the replicated data, we still would have been able to recover, but in the meantime, our users is Europe would have been without a system," says Aquent's Hunter. "So what we gained was availability."

5. Agility also means the ability to move the office

As a staffing company with creative services clients, Aquent needs its offices to be near the creative centers of town. As those centers move, the company tends to shift its office space.

"Everything that the office does now -- if you walk in and look at our agents, they are basically looking at screens and on headsets probably -- all of that is channeled over an Internet link," Bolick says.

Having its essential business processes and office functions in the cloud allows the company to simplify the movement of offices, says Bolick. The company has moved nearly ten of the key applications that run its office to the cloud, including e-mail, video conferencing, fax and its business reporting system.

"It makes it comparably easy to move an office," he says. "We take a router and take the modem, plug it into a new location, and make some backend changes and we are ready to go."

Today, Aquent has nearly completely its cloud transformation. It's looking at replacing its remaining non-cloud application -- a desktop productivity suite -- but has decided to wait until that market has matured and its current licenses expire, Bolick says.

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