Amazon entrance to 'shake up' Australian competition, says THINK Education

The private education company has saved money and increased stability with Amazon Web Services, says IT director, Andy Donaldson.

The arrival of Amazon Web Services in Sydney is due to make a deep impact on the Australian market, predicted THINK Education IT director, Andy Donaldson. Amazon announced the opening of its first edge location in Australia earlier this month.

Getting big global players like Amazon into the Australian market “is going to shake up the competition,” Donaldson told Computerworld Australia. “In my personal opinion, that’s a good thing.”

THINK, a private education company, was one of the first corporate businesses in Australia to use AWS, signing up for Amazon’s storage service in 2008 and adding other services nearly two years ago. It was also one of the first Australian companies to adopt Amazon’s virtual private cloud service; the service has been live for about three months. “The Achilles’ heel for a lot of people with cloud is the geographical location of your data’s host,” Donaldson said. Amazon’s entrance into Sydney “is going to do a lot to start to move the Australian market into some of those” AWS services, he said.

Amazon so far has announced the Sydney edge location will focus on CloudFront services, which “isn’t relevant to us at the moment” because “the majority of our business is in Australia” and THINK isn’t looking to reach other countries yet, Donaldson said. However, that could change in the future as the business grows, he said.

“We’re comfortable running the things we’re running out of Singapore,” Donaldson said. “If that game changes and there’s an opportunity to have some things geographically in Australia … we might move some things.”

THINK Education’s experience with AWS

The current iteration of THINK Education is the result of several mergers and acquisitions, and integration was an early challenge, Donaldson said. When Donaldson joined the company about two years ago, “we very quickly realized that we had a business of eight separate businesses.” The company and its technology was “disjointed,” he said. “That’s when things like cloud computing started to come into the picture.”

It wasn’t difficult for the company to pursue cloud because it “had a relatively blank slate and not a great deal of legacy,” Donaldson said. “We weren’t shackled to Oracle or SAP or any of those types of things, which meant we could look at the market choices fairly openly.”

“We were looking for hosting services” and the three companies “that we had really weren’t serving us very well,” he said. They were “low budget, small business solutions,” he said. Wary of restrictive contracts, THINK sought “advanced functionality” and the “ability to run anything we wanted.” “What we had before was too expensive, we were having some stability problems [and] we knew we weren’t going to be able to scale.”

THINK analysed two “traditional nuts-and-bolts” data centres and two cloud offerings, including AWS. Amazon’s service was the clear winner, he said.

“When we first started looking at AWS, there was a tangible buzz in the team,” Donaldson said. “I remember one of the guys at the time saying, ‘I haven’t felt this excited since the first time I looked at VMware.’”

AWS provides “virtualisation on steroids,” he said. “The guys in the team were well-versed in the VMware environment … and then all of a sudden you have this similar sort of power of scalability and moving images around, but in a data centre, which you can control through a website and … programmatically.” It “meant we could pretty much do anything we want.”

“The other thing that really backed that up was the dollars,” Donaldson said. “We were going to significantly drive our costs down.” A project to cut printing costs by making use of virtual private cloud is expected to save $500,000 per annum, he said.

Customers have seen increased stability since THINK made the move, he said. “A lot of our business is online education, and we had a few issues in the past with outages.” The new system also allows the company to support more customers, he said.

THINK has so far focused on stability, but “now we’re coming out of that” and “getting into another growth phase,” Donaldson said. THINK is looking to grow its customer base and expand its course offerings, he said.

“There will always be probably a handful of things we will keep in our own data centre,” Donaldson said. For example, THINK’s health college keeps medical records that are sensitive by nature, and the company is not yet comfortable putting that type of data online, he said.

Donaldson has a recommendation for IT managers exploring a similar move into the cloud: “Understand your business requirements carefully.”

“Delivery of any technology always has to start with understanding what you’re trying to achieve for your business,” he said. “Carefully consider how you need to resource your business and your team to meet that requirement. Make sure you’ve got the pieces of the puzzle in place to … effectively get that new technology into your business.”

The hardest part of any IT project is to “change management,” he added. “It doesn’t matter what technology you’re deploying. It’s your business’s ability to adapt and accommodate the change.”

One more word of advice: “Don’t be blinded by the marketing. Don’t think that cloud computing is going to solve all your problems. It’s not.”

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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