Midcounties Co-op invest in hosted data centre as public cloud ‘lacks maturity’

The Midcounties Co-operative has upgraded its hosted data centre to support business expansion plans, claiming that public cloud offerings lack maturity for enterprise use.

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The Midcounties Co-operative has upgraded its hosted data centre to support business expansion, deciding against investment in public cloud services which lack maturity for enterprise use.

The Midlands-based co-operative group began the upgrade of its data centre environment in 2011, and involved the replacement of the existing server, storage and networking equipment hosted in service provider Six Degrees Group’s co-location facility in Studley.

Prior to the upgrade Midcounties had considered expanding its use of public cloud resources, which had been limited to some non-critical software as a service applications and Amazon Web Services for dev/test purposes. However head of IT at Midcounties Co-op, Sheridan Hindle, decided that the options available at the time lacked the sophistication required for wider use across the business.

“We are in that little grey area [with cloud computing] where the technology is still emerging, how the security is going to work is still emerging, and interoperability is still emerging,” Hindle told ComputerworldUK.

“It is okay with something like Office or using Google [Docs], but what happens if we use a generic cloud provider and then we say 'well actually you are not cost effective any more, we want to move it somewhere else?’. The last time I looked there aren’t the standards that allow the easy merge of a system over to another provider.”

Infrastructure refresh

The company opted to replace its hosted and on-premise infrastructure, setting up a private cloud within its primary data centre in the Six Degrees Group facility - where Midcounties Co-op had been since 2006 – and a secondary facility at its Warwick head office.

The project involved implementing four Dell PowerEdge servers virtualised with VMware and providing 200 virtual machines, a Dell Compellent SAN, Cisco 5585-X firewalls and Cisco 7000 for switching. The entire data centre environment is replicated with similar infrastructure in an active-passive configuration, failing over to its Warwick facility.

The modernised infrastructure has given the IT department more flexibilty, Hindle said, removing capacity barriers that were in place previously.

"It has freed our ability to go into other areas we wouldn’t have before. We can now with some certainty know that when we develop a digital strategy, whether we develop apps for colleagues or consumers, we know that we have got the capacity to cope," he said.

"It has created a platform that makes us confident that whichever part of our business is growing in the digital space we can deal with."

Increased demand on systems

The upgrade has also provided the necessary infrastructure resiliency to underpin new services as the business has expanded into new areas.

The Midlands-based firm is the largest co-operative in the UK, with yearly revenues reaching £1 billion as it expands its traditional food and retail operations to include new markets such as travel, childcare and energy. 

The data-intensive Co-operative Energy business created a sharp increase in storage requirements as its customer base has grown from 20,000 to 200,000 in two years. Weekly backups have increased from 3TB each weekend to 15TB since 2011, Hindle said, and haven risen at a rate of 25 percent over the past six months.

The co-operative has also invested in a new software system to help cope with demand for its energy business, running on Microsoft Dynamics for CRM with a bespoke billing system and sitting on Oracle hardware and databases.

However the legacy data centre infrastructure had struggled to deal with the influx of data in the past.

“The major infrastructure transformation piece was initially driven from energy, which is very much a web-based product that we supply to the consumers,” Hindle said.

“Everybody wants to check whether we are the cheapest provider. Two years ago we got to the point where we dropped our energy price and everybody increased theirs, and the actual hit on the infrastructure - the Cisco routers, firewalls etc that had all been there since 2006 - it maxed them out. It was the first time that it had ever happened to us.”  

Future cloud plans

The main parts of the infrastructure upgrade have now been completed, with the switch-over from its legacy systems completed in September 2013.

Hindle said that while the company has not embraced the public cloud just yet, he expects this to change going forward as vendor offerings improve.

He plans to begin looking again this year at cloud platforms which offer greater interoperability, such as OpenStack, as well as which business applications could be run via a software as a service tools model.

"Because we started the infrastructure change in 2011, everything wasn't ready: the cloud wasn't in a good place for me, and our systems weren't in the right place either,” he said.

"I suspect across 2014 and into 2015 that is changing. You can feel there is a level of maturity in the cloud space that means we are starting those investigations more earnestly in terms of what we do not have to look after [on-premise].  

"One of our travel systems is in the cloud, and is completely managed by a third party. That is fine and it works, but it is not the critical element of it.

"What our strategy will end up being is non-critical systems will go first to a generic cloud provider. Plus if whoever we get the system off has their cloud based service, those systems will move over to them, and then we will see where critical systems go from there."