Cloud makes the cut for Cash Converters

A cloud-based point-of-sale system cut up to AU$1.5 million out of global IT project capex.

Pawn store chain Cash Converters has announced that it is making use of the cloud to facilitate its global expansion.

The company has begun rolling out a new cloud-based system, built on Microsoft's Azure platform, that will allow both franchisee and corporate stores to manage point of sale (PoS), inventory, tax, CRM, loans, and repairs all in the one system.

According to Cash Converter's software development manager James Miles, the system was conceived a number of years ago with Microsoft partner Readify, and was slated to be built as an on-premises system running on dedicated HP servers and Microsoft Server.

However, it became apparent during its on-premises rollout that the system would be hobbled by physical IT infrastructure issues.

"We couldn't easily update the server environment ... and data security was an issue; someone could just walk into a store, pick up a database server, and walk out with it," he said.

"Another problem is that the hardware ages, and we realised that by the time we completed the rollout, we would have to begin replacing servers."

The solution was to deploy the application in the cloud, using Microsoft's Azure platform.

To ensure maximum availability of the new cloud-based service, Cash Converters decided to host primary and secondary versions out of geographically redundant Singapore and Hong Kong datacentres. The two countries' datacentres would also separately serve the east and west coasts of Australia.

"We separate, by state, so that we can track the sun with our maintenance windows," Miles said of the approach. "It is very convenient to be able to say that at 5pm in Queensland, we can start upgrading servers in the cloud, then two hours later update Western Australia.

"It also allows us to do a controlled release, and mitigate the risk of rolling out software platform like this, which is a global platform, and also running in the UK."

With the recent announcement that Microsoft intends to launch two Australian datacentres for Azure in 2014, Miles said Cash Converters will look to move one of its Asia-based datacenters to Australia. This would reduce latency times as well as allow the business to continue running if connectivity between Asia and Australia becomes affected.

In moving to the cloud, Cash Converters has also sought to mitigate connectivity risks at the store level through running two ADSL connections from different ISPs per store, and in also running routers with a 3G or 4G failover capability.

"That's important, because it is not just the [PoS] system running instore; we have VoIP communications we need to run instore, and we have video surveillance in stores, and we need to get that data back to head office, potentially, or into the cloud," he said.

Quantifying the benefits of moving to the cloud, Miles said there is a "considerable cost saving", in that Cash Converters was able to save the original AU$1.5 million it had budgeted for physical servers in the original on-premises version of the PoS system.

"We just haven't had to spend that money," he said. "The operational expense of this platform — to run the 120 corporate stores per year for the production environment, is AU$50,000 per year. I think that is a significant saving."

The cloud deployment also benefited the company in freeing up its IT staff to work on other projects, such as its VoIP and video surveillance, Miles said.

Commenting on why the company chose Microsoft's Azure in particular, Miles said the layer of abstraction the platform-as-a-service offered was better suited to Cash Converters' plans.

"What's interesting about these environments is that when we update [the system] for Queensland geo-region, for example, we don't patch the software on those servers," he said. "We delete them, then provision three brand new servers with the new release of the software and that runs ... till we do our next update, then we delete them."

Tim Lohman travelled to Microsoft's TechEd conference as a guest of Microsoft.

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