Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Art of the Hybrid Cloud

How Built created a hybrid cloud for construction

How a hybrid cloud strategy is the answer for a fast-growing Australian construction company.

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Image: Built

The Australian construction sector is not known for being innovative. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals that only a third of construction companies could be classed as "innovation-active" compared with more than half of businesses in the warehousing, telecommunications, and retail sectors. But one construction company is looking to change that and lead by example.

Founded in 1998, Built handles construction builds, refurbishments, and fitouts for customers such as Apple, Cartier, Commonwealth Bank, Hewlett-Packard, Louis Vuitton, National Australia Bank, Ramsay Healthcare, St George, Virgin Australia, and Westpac.

The company claims it has doubled in size over the last five years by revenue and employee count, currently generating AU$1 billion in annual revenue and employing 700 staff across six states. It manages projects greater than AU$200 million in size and has established a 70 percent repeat client rate.

Built's head of IT, Wai-Lum Tang, who has been at the company for 18 months, said one of the reasons a business as big and mature as Built has been able to grow quickly "like a startup" is because of its appetite for innovation.

"We are really challenging the status quo in the construction industry to find new and better ways of doing things," Tang said.

"We've been investing in our own apps to manage aspects like safety, quality, and procurement.

"There is a lot of exciting technology coming into our space, and for us, it's about how we use this and integrate it to achieve positive outcomes for our people, business, and customers."

The 19-year-old company now applies a "cloud-first" approach -- at infrastructure and application levels -- to everything it does. For Built, cloud-based technology provides new capability faster and more cost-effectively to where it delivers the greatest business benefit.

The greatest upshot is improved margins in an industry where profits are thin -- in the 2014-15 financial year, the industry's profit margin was 10.2 percent, according to a report [PDF] by Bankwest -- and operational costs are variable due to volatile commodity prices.

Since implementing cloud-based technologies, many of which operate on subscription or consumption-based models, Tang said Built has been able to better forecast its spend in line with its growth profile.

Built uses both public and private cloud platforms, relying on Amazon Web Services (AWS) to store its web hosting assets, while its private cloud is managed by Superloop subsidiary BigAir.

Tang said the company's IT group currently runs its cloud platform strategy "like an investment portfolio" in that it selects the right platform -- public or private -- for the application or tool it is deploying.

It uses public cloud infrastructure for applications such as email, file storage, team communications, construction management, project management, and other areas of productivity. Some of these applications are internally-built, while others are externally-sourced.

"We don't have our own email servers; we use Microsoft 365. We also use Dropbox for file storage, Slack for internal communications, and Trello for work management. Our identity management system, mobile device management system, and ERP are also cloud-based, SaaS-based. We don't own any infrastructure, which means our IT team isn't locked down trying to manage infrastructure," Tang said.

Private cloud infrastructure is used for internal assets such as files that would not be shared with anyone who is not directly employed at Built.

Taking infrastructure management out of the equation

Built's hybrid cloud journey began about two years ago when the company decided to outsource its infrastructure.

The company's primary datacentre is a managed hosted environment that is multi-tenanted, which Tang said works "significantly better" for Built. Its IT group needs to remain "nimble" so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the business, and so it does not make sense to have "clunky infrastructure and a team to manage it".

Tang identified smarter resource management as one of the greatest benefits of transitioning to a hybrid cloud environment, explaining that Built's IT group can now spend more time finding or building solutions than managing servers, networks, and operating systems.

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Wai-Lum Tang, Head of IT at Built

Image: Supplied

"In the past, we would have had to spend a lot of money on building our own private cloud and employ highly specialised technical resources to build and manage the environment and manage detailed technical items such as hypervisor, input/output operations, demand/capacity management, and network issues. Then possibly double that spend to build a capable [disaster recovery] environment," Tang said.

"At Built, our IT team doesn't spend time managing all these technical points; instead, we rely on partners to host and manage the entire environment -- leveraging their team of experts and allowing us to focus on hiring resources that can focus on addressing business challenges and not servers and networks."

The hybrid cloud approach, according to Tang, also enables Built to improve IT responsiveness and prototype applications more easily.

"In the old world, when you wanted to deploy an application, you would spin up a server, configure it, patch, and commission it. Then when that box was ready, you will need to install the app, figure out how to enable access, and then deploy to your users. That's a lot of steps and work to deploy an application," Tang said.

"When you consider many of our teams are based on construction sites, this can take a lot of time, which is time not spent getting on with the project for our customers."

Making collaboration more productive

Built realised last year that it needed centralised file management and access that made it easy for project collaborators to edit and share files faster and more securely from any workstation or device.

Previously, the company used network-attached storage devices at every project site, but transitioned to Dropbox in October last year. It also had on-premises file servers at every regional office and datacentre, whereas now the company supplements its local servers with Dropbox, which Tang said allows the company to derive the "best of both worlds".

"You got these big marketing documents that you couldn't email, you couldn't easily transmit, and you couldn't easily use VPN technology to open it ... It was difficult to access files outside the office or on mobile technology" Tang said.

"With Dropbox, we were able to easily share files with our peers or colleagues, with people in other cities and offices, which meant we could bring in a team that's not just locally sitting together, but nationally working on a project or a bid."

Using Dropbox in conjunction with other cloud-based applications such as Trello, Tang said Built has been able to respond to four times more tenders than it was able to even a year ago.

"Our marketing team would prepare the documentation, prepare the design, and draft it all up, and rather than getting all the [collaborators] to comment online, we would print it out and put it on the table, or we would email it to them. When everyone puts in their replies, notes, and markups, before you know it, the documentation is out of date," Tang said.

"But what we're able to do now is put the documentation online ... and people are able to comment on markups or any other variations in real-time. So the bid leader who logs into his PC or laptop or iPad is always looking at the most up-to-date version and we're able to turn around tenders quicker."

While Tang was not able to disclose Built's return on investment in Dropbox, he noted that completing four times as many tenders means "four times the opportunities of putting ourselves in front of prospective clients".

"Eventually, that's going to mean securing more jobs for Built," Tang added.

What happens to legacy data

Tang said one of the biggest challenges around hybrid cloud implementation is identifying "where to draw the line in the sand" when it comes to legacy data.

"Because we have a hybrid [environment], we don't have to take everything with us to the public cloud. For example, we have approximately 70 project sites across the group and not every one of those projects sites that is currently in-flight is going to be on Dropbox," Tang said.

"However, for the new projects coming on board, we are slowly putting them into Dropbox ... that way, we don't have to bring across legacy information. We don't have to change the way existing project teams are doing their job. We just train them as they move on to the new project."

Tang also noted the importance of separating legacy and new datasets, especially if the company has subscribed to a consumption-based model with a cloud vendor.

Where possible, Tang believes companies should adopt a hybrid solution "because you get the best of both worlds."

"But before jumping into any hybrid cloud solution, ask yourself: 'What would a startup do?'" Tang advised.

"The hybrid cloud model is a great enabler for companies to access applications and technologies without deploying expensive datacentres. It's especially valuable for businesses with limited resources who need to be smart with how they spend their IT budget."

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