Inside Telstra's massive mission-critical cloud migration to IBM Bluemix

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Inside Telstra's massive mission-critical cloud migration to IBM Bluemix

Telstra is preparing to have one in every five of its mission critical applications moved to IBM’s Bluemix cloud in around eight months' time, hosted from dedicated private environments in Sydney and Melbourne.

The 12-month migration challenge will see some 4000 Telstra workloads shifted to Bluemix (or as IBM’s Aussie reps call it, “the artist formerly known as Softlayer”).

Telstra - one of Australia’s largest, oldest, and most tightly regulated corporations - is on a mission to digitise so it doesn’t get crushed under the wheels of the over-the-top (OTT) media juggernaut.

Jim Fagan, Telstra’s Hong Kong-based head of its global cloud business, was at IBM’s Las Vegas cloud conference last week talking up the early benefits of the telco’s digitisation leap.

He said just four to five months in, Telstra is already starting to slim its expensive data centre footprint, and is getting application changes to market as much as 25 percent faster.

“There is a real sense of urgency,” Fagan said.

“I think we’re at an inflection point where if we don’t digitise, the OTTs are going to digitise over us and we really are going to become a utility that just has big pipes.

“It is still early in the journey but [the cloud migration] is already starting to free us up."

Cloud first

IBM went “cloud first” for all new application work about three years ago.

This meant that when a round of refresh cycle trigger points rolled past recently, public cloud became the default choice for Telstra, whose heavy and siloed IT environment boasts some 10,000 VMs, 20,000 workloads, and 20 petabytes of data.

“We thought, do we go and spend a tonne of capex to put in new equipment to get us a little bit of benefit, because those VMs might get better IO performance? Or do we actually take this as an opportunity to transform?” Fagan said.

The cloud switch forms the foundation of a “very large digital transformation project” currently underway at the telco.

The backend migration list includes a suite of Telstra’s core ERP applications, as well as its identity management systems for both customers and internal staff.

It is being led by what Telstra calls its ‘Migration Factory’ - a combination of staff from Telstra and IBM who are sifting through all 4000 targeted workloads to decide which can be lifted and shifted, and which need to be rearchitected and optimised for the cloud.

Learning to cloud

The Migration Factory is also central to Telstra’s parallel agenda for the cloud switch: upskilling its staff for more contemporary digital services.

“It kickstarts that development skill set,” Fagan said.

“By doing this migration with IBM we are starting to see a lot of operational IT folk start to work with developers to handle this … We want ownership of our roadmap.

"And this upskilling of our developer community means the way we stitch our capabilities together and deliver them to the market will really become a differentiator.”

Like many big enterprises trying to stay relevant in an unpredictable and rapidly shifting market, Telstra is trying to break its IT environment into pieces that it can mould into the kind of business its customers demand.

“We are trying to modularise everything and make everything API enabled,” Fagan said.

It has even started to experiment with commercial use of these APIs, including a six month pilot with a group of developers who have agreed to pay to use feeds of anonymised billing data from Telstra’s vast customer base.

“So our architecture is based around what we want to expose and how we want to expose it."

Why IBM?

On its commercial side, Telstra is a reseller for all types of public cloud offerings, including the market giants like AWS and Microsoft Azure.

So why opt for IBM internally, an organisation that is still a relative bit-player in the public cloud sphere?

According to Fagan, the devil is in the detail: the real decider for the telco in the end was IBM’s partnership with VMware.

“We were moving a very large VMware environment, where because of the networking constraints we had in place we were heavily using NSX," he said.

“So with Bluemix and the partnership they have with VMware, this gave us the ability to easily recreate those legacy gateways for legacy workloads. It made it the perfect platform for the shift to cloud.

“But also we wanted to learn and upskill. With so many of the other public clouds you have to do it all yourself, but we can take IBM knowledge for our migration factory and partner with that.”

To date Telstra has moved about one-third of the applications it is targeting. The pace of the migration is expected to pick up towards the end of the year-long job as the team learns and irons out early bugs.

Paris Cowan travelled to InterConnect in Las Vegas as a guest of IBM.

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