What's the best way to make the most of the cloud?

Guinness World Records has used partnerships to help create business value from its move to the public cloud.

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What's the best approach to moving to the cloud? According to Rob Howe, IT director at Guinness World Records (GWR), it's to tread very carefully. Rather than rushing into cloud-led digital transformation, he believes CIOs should evaluate workloads, find partners and -- only then -- think about how on-demand IT can help deliver innovative services to customers.

"Cherry pick the key elements -- understand the changes you need to make to the infrastructure, and the behaviour of software, when you're moving over," says Howe. "Be aware of the differences and account for them. Not all systems will move easily. The cloud should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution to your business challenges."

Howe joined GWR in May 2012, but he didn't alter anything in terms of IT during his first six months at the firm. "In fact, I didn't even plan anything," he says. "I just sat with the teams across the business and understood how they were working. You can't implement changes without understanding the day-to-day workloads of people across the business."

This careful strategy has produced great results, says Howe. He advises other CIOs to take a similarly integrated approach to digital transformation. "If you're not involved in the operational side of the organisation, then you're probably going to fall over something further down the line," he says.

By working alongside the rest of the business, Howe has led a staged approach to digital transformation that has included the implementation of a records management platform from SDL, a digital asset management system from Asset Bank, and Salesforce CRM technology.

As a final stage of the transformation process, GWR chose Ensono to manage the migration of its business-critical IT architecture to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform. The project ensures the company's IT system can manage the ongoing transformation of its business from a publishing organisation to a digital media agency.

SEE MORE: Cloud computing is the key to digital transformation at Guinness World Records

Howe says his team started the transition to the cloud in February. The full move will be complete by the end of this year. He says the main challenge has been to co-ordinate a range of partners. As well as key partner Ensono, GWR has drawn on eight other providers during the transition, including SDL and Asset Bank.

"Some of these providers have to redesign their platforms to work more effectively on AWS," says Howe. The result, however, is GWR benefits from an agile base for service delivery and can operate in a cloud-first manner. "We can deliver features to our end-customers more effectively and it provides more flexibility to our business," he says.

Howe says his IT department tries to be at least alongside, but preferably in front, of the rest of the organisation. "We look at the business plan, make predictions and try and get ahead," he says. "Our aim is to create flexible solutions that allow the rest of the business to focus on their main activities, rather than having to wait months while we set up the technology."

The cloud plays a crucial role in this approach.

"It allows us to provide a higher level of service across our public web sites," he says. "And it allows us to run projects that might have a finite life. If there's a multimedia project being run by a team, we can spin up isolated areas and power them down when they're finished, instead of committing to infrastructure spend."

That ability to scale is critical to the organisation. Six years ago, the business had clear peaks in traffic -- the launch of its world-famous book of records every September and Guinness World Records Day in November. Today, GWR is less reliant on publishing and operates more like a digital consultancy and its traffic peaks are unpredictable. Howe gives an example.

"On the first day we went live with the new AWS infrastructure, there was a press release for the largest unlimited wave surfed by a woman," he says. "It was huge news in the surfing community and within a few hours we'd received four times our normal daily web traffic. Yet we were able to meet that demand comfortably by just turning on the auto-scaling capability of the cloud."

As well as scalability and flexibility, Howe says the cloud provides other benefits. "It allows us to be more dynamic as a team and to think more carefully about where we should focus our attention," he says. "It gives us better transparency in terms of costs, too."

SEE: Cloud v. data center decision (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Howe aims to use the cloud as a platform for further innovation. He says the next step is to convert GWR's application programming interface (API) layer to microservices. Then he and his team will start to think about what type of data should be pushed out to edge locations.

GWR, therefore, has created a solid platform for continued digital transformation. Howe looks back on the changes he's made and says the key best-practice lesson for other CIOs considering a move to the cloud is to focus on planning. "Make sure you and your organisation understand the changes you're going to be going through," he says.

Gregor Petri, research vice president at Gartner, says the analyst firm is seeing evidence of cloud vendors providing more options to CIOs. Rather than only offering their own services, increased numbers of vendors are recognising the power of hyperscale cloud specialists, such as Microsoft, Google and AWS, and offering to run their services on these giants' platforms.

That's an approach that's familiar to Howe. Ensono, rather than pushing a move to the newest version of its private cloud, suggested the best answer was for GWR to shift its infrastructure to AWS. He says the approach has paid dividends for GWR and he suggests other CIOs should consider similar tie-ups.

"Find a partner -- don't try and do everything yourself," he says. "And don't just lift and shift -- as part of the research that I did prior to move, I found all the people who were struggling that had moved to the cloud were people who'd just literally taken their existing infrastructure, replicated it and had found a bunch of problems."

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