AGL keeps the meters running by moving into the cloud

Australian utility giant AGL has been making gradual movements into the cloud, and as a result has been able to launch web chat online and release its own native apps.

In realising that in order to remain competitive in what Australian utility provider AGL has described as a "disrupted" environment, the company has progressively been moving into the cloud.

As part of the move, the company recently launched its native app on both Android and iOS to give customers the opportunity to manage their gas and electricity usage from their smartphone. The app has been designed to allow users to see their account balance, their consumption to date, and the value of their next bill in dollar terms.

"We've been disrupted for a long time with regulations, renewables, and within the tech space the most tangible sign of what we are doing to respond has been the native apps," said Andy Williams, AGL head of strategy and delivery, at Microsoft Ignite Australia 2015.

Since the release of the apps, Williams said the company has seen a significant uptake based on download rates of the apps, as well as improved engagement with the company as there is evidence of customers using the app every day -- some even at 1am.

The app has been built on a public API hosted in Microsoft Azure in Australia.

"We felt [Azure] gave us a scalable platform because we know that if your performance isn't sharp you'd have customers fall away, so this gives us an auto-scalability we need to keep our performance up. It also allows us to cache appropriate data," he said.

Williams also revealed the company is also using its web API to rebuild AGL's web solution to enable for easier management. He added that there are expectations third parties will also begin using AGL's web API.

The introduction of web chat in partnership with Live Person to AGL's website has also been another area of focus, Williams said. As a result, 92 percent of those surveyed following the web chat conversation said they were happy with how it helped them close out their transaction. In turn, AGL has seen a 65 percent increase in the company's ability to close online sales in the web chat environment.

In addition to moving into the cloud, AGL has also been able to increase its responsiveness to changes. Shaun Code, AGL head of IT, explained for example, as part of AGL's online sale process, the company identified through analytics there were certain points of the process in which customers were dropping out. But by making changes to the website such as reducing the number of screens and improving response time, the customer experience was improved, according to Code.

Code said the company now releases fortnightly changes and enhancements to projects, compared to the past when it would only make two or three major releases a year.

But it's not only in the front-end that AGL is making changes. In the back-end where AGL's core business functions run on SAP, the company has started using an agile methodology to ensure the company's digital and app development capabilities go hand-in-hand.

"SAP and agile are not often used in the same sentence except for at AGL where we're starting to implement agile for SAP. The reason is we need to pair our front-end changes with our back-end changes," he said.

Looking forward, AGL plans to move its disaster recovery environment and "hefty" SAP production billing system to the cloud.

Currently, the company's disaster recovery environment is reliant on physical hardware, which, according to Code, is a large expense to keep running.

"We can see a real value opportunity to put disaster recovery into the cloud. If you think about the disaster recovery model and cloud, with cloud you pay for what you use, and disaster recovery doesn't really get used. It's pretty dormant until, hopefully when it never happens, a disaster occurs and that's when you start paying for the system."

The company is also waiting on Microsoft's G-Series, a new system it plans to use as it moves its SAP production system into the cloud.

Aimee Chanthadavong travelled to Microsoft Ignite Australia 2015 as a guest of Microsoft.