When he was first appointed to head up the IT team at the Australian Property Institute (API) some 18-months ago, CIO Joel Leslie, found an organisation struggling with its current customer relationship management (CRM) system.
The API represents about 10,000 property professionals throughout Australia, including the likes of residential and commercial valuers, property advisers and analysts, property fund and asset managers, property facility managers, property lawyers, and property researchers and academics.
The organisation has offices in each capital city around the country, which house a staff of about 35, plus “a stack” of home users.
Upon his arrival at the API, Leslie identified an environment in dire need of a shake-up and promptly wrote a new “holistic” strategy that was similar to what he had implemented previously as head of IT at real estate firm Raine and Horne.
“I used the same type of philosophy at API and it’s been working really well since,” he said. “We had to compress the infrastructure of the internet as it was quite flaky around the country so by moving resources around we found that investing in good internet connection reduced the costs.”
“When I started at the API they were at the tail-end of implementing an ERP [enterprise resource planning] type CRM system nationally and it wasn’t really on any infrastructure,” Leslie said.
“The system was from a local provider and they’ve had inherent problems dealing with the company, let alone the solution so it was a big stumbling block… a million dollars for an ERP solution for 30 people sounds a bit much.”
“It was on a mail server pipeline and when a whole bunch of emails were sent out the connection died off,” he said. “It was a traditional data centre and I think at the time they implemented the product they also had to go and buy more hardware because it just wasn’t functioning.”
With an implementation of Amazon Web Services (AWS) at Raine and Horne under his belt, Leslie began weighing up the pros and cons of how the business could best leverage off a Cloud platform, following which he opted to carry out a similar project at the API.
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“We did look around [at other options] because it was such new technology even 18 months ago. There are a few Australian players but I wanted something reliable because my reputation was relying on this to work.”
According to Leslie, the infrastructure-as-a-service model was best suited to the business as the CRM system needed to connect to a terminal server.
“We ended up purchasing a whole bunch of instances and setting it up as a data centre and then putting our application in over the top.
“The good thing about what we’ve got is that we can adjust the amount of resources per instance as we need, so in the downtime at night when no one is using it we can scale it right back and then during the day we can fire it up, which saves a stack of money.”
The institute stores its data offshore in AWS’ Singapore data centre which resulted in some latency issues, Leslie said. The issues were primarily resolved by increasing the internet connections; however, one or two offices still aren’t up to scratch.
According to Leslie, while there was much analysis conducted on the AWS platform prior to implementation, the API did underestimate the hefty size of the product and its resources.
“I thought it was more of a system where we give it the best practice in IT and it’d fix everything,” he said. “I probably got that wrong because I didn’t think ‘well hang on, this thing needs an enormous server to run’, because I wasn’t just trying to match what was there previously, I was trying to better it.”
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There was also a struggle to find staff with the skills to assist in the implementation process and support from Amazon was limited at times.
“There is Amazon support, but at that particular time I had limited Amazon contacts, so connecting with then was a bit difficult. It took a few phone calls, emails and trips to Washington to try to get them to listen to you.”
“We brought on contractors and trained existing staff, as it’s just a different way of thinking,” he said. “There’s nothing to be scared of and I think that’s a big thing in IT at the moment, people are scared of Cloud and people using security as a big risk as a reason not to go with Cloud.
“If someone is complaining about security being an issue in IT then they’re not doing their job properly and they need to change their way of thinking.”
The platform took about six months to implement and the pay-per-use model has been a significant advantage for the company, Leslie said.
“For us to do a data centre on the scale of what Amazon is providing us for a small fee, we just couldn’t,” he said. “We’d have to get two or three internet connections, at least two sites, multiple power cooling; it would just be impossible.”
According to Leslie, the key is to learn as much as possible about the technology prior to implementation with research and analysis of everything in the market
The Cloud implementation is just part of a wider project that was set in motion with Leslie’s new strategy, which aims to look at data as information rather than treating it differently according to the medium is it is distributed through.
The API is now implementing a converged phone system, starting with the South Australian office and then rolling it out across the country.
“The first thing we did was get everyone’s head around working a different way and then I had some clear ways of delivering the technology. First was Cloud and then of course creating the business process of converging all the things, because voice is just data; there’s no reason anyone should be phoning each other on a traditional phone.”
“When we’re finally finished with the phone system then it’s just a refinement strategy where we get rid of all those things we’ve done,” he said. “We’re working to an Agile development methodology, meaning we’re developing and spinning off projects as we move forward, instead of beginning at the start and not delivering anything until the end, it just doesn’t work.”
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