AT&T takes one giant leap into the cloud

Telecommunications giant AT&T says adopting the cloud is as much about a change in culture as in technology.
Written by Drew Turney, Contributor

Telecommunications giant AT&T began a formal program to migrate all strategic applications to the cloud in 2013, with 40 percent of the migration due to be complete by the end of this year.

Taking an all or nothing approach, senior VP of IT operations Rick Felts says the migration covers all teams, functions, and business segments spanning architecture, development, infrastructure, and operations.

AT&T's senior VP of IT operations, Rick Felts

"Acceptance was key to the success," Felts explains. "Before officially starting the program we did extensive analysis on all our workloads, their cloud readiness, and the support model changes we'd need. Knowing we needed new skill sets, we created formal programs including a cloud 'boot camp' to provide training across all IT disciplines to help with the culture change."

In a company that operates in 225 countries and earned $128bn in 2013, advance planning was critical to move quickly once the program was underway. Moving processes to the company's own enterprise cloud products, year one is complete, and Felts says he's seeing "very positive results" in line with program forecasts.

The main goal behind the move was to drive quicker time to market at a lower cost.

"Cloud technologies deliver reach and economics that just aren't possible in legacy compute models," Felts says. "And they do that by moving from dedicated application resources to massively shared resources built on low cost commodity infrastructure."

It's also clear the cloud can solve a host of other IT problems, whether you're a sole trader or a multibillion dollar telecom.

"By moving to the cloud we're attacking our end of service life problem in the traditional UNIX space, which was difficult to justify by performing like-for-like replacements," Felts adds. "By changing the application architecture from vertical to horizontal scaling, we're forcing modernisation of the software components."

When you get to AT&T's size, a traditional datacentre or server rollout could be enough to break less financially secure companies, but Felts says the company can now over-provision by more than 200 percent.

However, he cautions against thinking that cloud is just a porting exercise.

"It's a complete overhaul of your application environments," he warns. "A partnership between infrastructure and development teams to maximise the benefits. Effective planning and a formal program office are critical to set expectations and drive success. Vendor-assisted porting efforts are being used more often, and without clear objectives and measurements increased testing and delivery costs can adversely affect the business case."

Felts says education about the benefits both in IT departments and across the business is a key enabler to any company considering a similar move, and don't make the mistake of thinking you're just changing systems.

"Moving from traditional engineered solutions to data center resources is as much a change in mindset as it is in platforms," he says. "Don't underestimate the need to evaluate and change the way you operate."

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