Toll road giant Transurban prepares for a data-driven future with AWS

The ASX-listed toll road business has leveraged AWS to build a platform ready for the future of transport.

Toll road developer Transurban has been in the business for 20 years, and currently manages and develops 13 toll roads in Australia and two in the US state of Virginia.

Although toll roads and networks are the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX)-listed company's bread and butter, the organisation is gearing up for the future of roads and transport. Transurban general manager of technology Lisa Tobin is taking the business into the cloud in a bid to become "future proof".

Tobin is Transurban's technology evangelist, charged with ensuring the organisation makes the right technology decisions and heads down the right technology path that can stand the test of time.

As the largest player in the Australian market and the most "consistent" in the Virginian one, Tobin said Transurban has been quite successful.

The shareholder-owned organisation works largely with state governments as they ultimately own the road infrastructure.

"What we do is design and come up with proposals, then we organise to build them in conjunction with the particular state government, and then we operate them as toll roads," she explained.

Being in the business of transport and infrastructure means Transurban has longer than average cycles as a business. Tobin told ZDNet that this results in her company taking a couple of years to design a proposal around solving a transport-based problem within a community.

"We then work with state government for a couple of years to make sure that it makes sense for them and the broader community -- and that can take us a number of years to build. During that time, I've got to take bets and position what I feel are the best technology decisions to future-proof the business," she said.

When Tobin joined Transurban just over three years ago, she inherited a technology base that she said was conceived in a different world and time.

"We needed a different paradigm," she explained.

About 18 months ago, Tobin began the shift to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

"Over that time we have integrated what we call our enterprise cloud enablement, but what that did was establish our AWS services -- which we have in both Australia and the US -- and through that we have established API gateways through AWS' microservices suite. We've refreshed and re-platformed our CMS, refreshed our websites, developed consumer mobile channels, and developed consumer apps," Tobin said.

"We also developed a big data analytics platform which is serving both our operational internal business and will help us with consumer data propositions as well."

With the enormous disruption that has already begun across the market, from sensors on everything and the Internet of Things (IoT) to autonomous cars, Tobin said AWS provided Transurban with the solace of being future-proof.

"We had the ability to position this business for a changing future," Tobin said. "That's where we came on board [with AWS] about repositioning the technology function, not just to be an operator but to also be an enabler for what the business can do going forward."

In Las Vegas for the 2016 AWS re:Invent conference, Tobin said it became clear that Transurban is "up there" with the leading pack in terms of what the organisation has done with AWS services.

With over 5 million customers, Transurban produces an enormous amount of data.

"So you think about all of the opportunities with live streaming of traffic into real-time traffic management systems, into aggregating that data into customer account data and delivering value added services," Tobin said.

While partnering has been beneficial in facilitating Transurban's cloud journey, Tobin has noticed one important factor still lacking in her business model.

"These kinds of technologies and services change the type of people we need -- the people we want to attract in the market -- and we've made some good starts with some really clever people with our devops base and in our infrastructure space," she explained.

"I think there's a really big role for deeply technical people who understand business strategy -- there's always a shortage of the good people.

"We augment that with really good partners, but we need a balance. We need really good people internally, as well."

Benefiting Transurban is its US presence, Tobin said, as the organisation's tech teams on both sides of the world provide different contextual applications for the business.

While it breeds healthy competition, there's a bunch of services the Australian teams simply do not have access to.

Last week, AWS CEO Andy Jassy told ZDNet that his company will continue to focus on getting new products and services to market at speed, despite that resulting in lengthy delays for the majority of its 14 regions.

"It's always a trade-off when you're launching these services," Jassy said. "Do you want to wait until you have the services available in our 14 regions and 38 availability zones or do you actually want to get them into the hands of customers as quickly as possible."

Jassy explained that having the services in the hands of customers as soon as possible allows the cloud giant to receive fast feedback that aids in bettering the services as they are rolled out globally.

Disclosure: Asha McLean travelled to AWS Re:Invent as a guest of AWS.

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