Cloud? I don't really like the term. It brings a lot of mystique around it," says Aaron O'Brien, CIO of Les Mills International (LMI).
"It makes it seem intangible, and many businesses do not like things that are intangible," he says, from the company headquarters in Auckland's Freemans Bay.
"In reality, if you look at email in the cloud, it is there, sitting in some data centre in Singapore, so it is not in the cloud," he adds. "Because of that, I was not looking at moving to the cloud for the sake of it; I looked at the business need."
LMI is, essentially, a global company based in the heart of Auckland City. It is the largest provider of branded group fitness and training programs, being used in 15,500 clubs and gyms in more than 80 countries. It has more than 100,000 certified instructor guides, as well as around 1000 trainers across the globe, with 100 of them in the United States.
In the past two years, O'Brien has moved the company's email, Office and SharePoint into the cloud. As well, the company has implemented a sales, club and portal for its instructors on cloud-based development platforms.
The business case for the move started when O'Brien was presented with the cost of upgrading LMI's SAN every year, and putting a restriction on the mailbox sizes.
"Fundamentally, I never believed in restricting users of mailbox sizes," he says. "I know it is costly, but everything I do is about the user experience. 'Who is the person? Who is he working with? Am I providing the right tool?'"
"I was presented with a cost to upgrade every year if we archive," he says, referring to the original proposal by Origin IT, which managed LMI's infrastructure. The vendor also provided options like putting another Exchange Server in the United States, for it to be able to serve LMI's global offices.
"I went up the white board and wrote, 'US$25 a month a person, 25 gigabyte inbox and unlimited archives'.
You have to beat that and come back another two weeks and we will look at it. Otherwise, we are going to move to [Microsoft] Office 365.
"I believe that is the only way we can expand our ever-expanding networks across the world cost effectively and from a user experience point of view."
He also told Origin IT to look at Microsoft Cloud Exchange. "If they did not do this, they are going to be left behind because these types of products are fantastic for mid-sized businesses," which a lot of New Zealand companies are made up of, he says.
"These are companies who want to be able to scale without incurring massive corporate cost," says O'Brien.
Origin IT took on the migration to Office 365, but O'Brien says a challenge at that time was getting a local reference organisation.
White papers were written for companies in the United States and Europe. LMI could not find a New Zealand company that had actually decommissioned its Exchange Server and moved to the Office 365 platform.
More importantly, LMI could not find a local company with the same business requirements: 200-plus users based in offices across the globe, particularly New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
O'Brien wanted to do it "really aggressively" because LMI was experiencing Exchange outages and other issues. "I really wanted to make that stable."
For now, LMI has email, SharePoint and Lync working together.
"It really opened up how we communicate," he says. Lync, in particular, provides instant messaging and free voice and video calling from any device. O'Brien says it has been very useful especially in the United States where LMI has remote users in different states.
"The way we can collaborate is just fantastic; it has really changed the way we work."
Explaining to the board
He says he did not use the word 'cloud' at all when he explained why they had to decommission the on-premise server and move to Office 365.
"When you are talking to the board that you are moving to the cloud they will be concerned," he says.
So he explained it this way. "We have a Microsoft product Exchange. It is like a telephone exchange or a mail exchange and it holds all of our mail. And it is going to cost us X amount to resolve the issues staff are complaining about.
"We are going to use somebody who provides that service that is more specialised, and move forward redundancy and infrastructure, maintenance and support. They are going to move it directly to their data centre in Singapore which is hosted by Microsoft.
"What we are doing is a hosted service by Microsoft who supplied this anyway so there is no one better in the world who could manage it."
There was no argument, he says. "If I used the world cloud, there would have been a different discussion."
LMI is also using 'as-a-service' technologies in other areas of the business.
"We are building a self-service portal based on Salesforce for the 15,500 clubs so we can manage those instructors. Often, the instructors teach in these gyms and we need to manage where they are at with certifications. Some of them buy digital or physical products," says O'Brien. "It is bringing all the clubs and instructors and the product altogether."
The portal has just been rolled out in one of LMI's offices in the United States. The portal has a number of applications, which allows the instructor to register and go through a certification process. As part of that process, instructors have to film themselves teaching a class and submit that video to the assessment people.
Online, these all come together to create a profile for the instructor.
Once instructors have passed the assessment, they are affiliated with a club to teach.
Through this portal, they can buy the quarterly release of fitness videos. They can download it or buy a DVD, and back order to build a catalogue. They can also book in the same portal to get further qualifications.
LMI has built an events engine in the cloud that allows us to manage all those training, he says. "It is really important for us that they could, on any device, bring up one page and see all the information they need for the event they are going into," says O'Brien. In the past, they would send the schedules in spreadsheets and via email.
Related:A team building exercise without a Powerpoint presentationHow Aaron O'Brien of Les Mills International is building what could be the fittest ICT team in the country.
Into the box
LMI is also using another service-based application, Box.com, for the production of its videos.
"We are primarily a production company," he says, referring to the high definition videos LMI films every three months and related marketing material around these.
"The fitness programs are filmed and from a technical point of view that is raw footage of 50 to 100 gigabytes of video in HD to be reviewed."
After filming, footage is turned into two products: A physical DVD and digital product that can be downloaded, he says.
The people who will review the video and marketing materials could be in other countries or are travelling. "So we need the ability for multiple parties to see it."
For this, LMI uses Box.com. "It enables us to keep the business moving forward while we are looking for longer-term solutions," he says.
Before using Box.com, staff accessed the video through the virtual private network. "It was horrible," he says. "If you are opening a network drive or VPN and you are in North America, it takes a long time.
"When we collaborate with third parties it is in Box. We have a petabyte, which is a reasonable amount of space, but we are looking at Azure and Amazon."
He says LMI has instructors across the globe and depending on where they are based, they can get the training videos as DVDs or in some territories, as a service to be downloaded every three months.
By providing it as a service, the instructors can get the latest material, and the company does not have to consume huge amounts of plastic and incur shipping costs.
"Slowly as we have more markets moving to the digital platform, we are reducing the amount of DVDs," says O'Brien, and this ticks another box of LMI's corporate principles.
"My CEO Phillip Mills] is incredibly environmentally conscious," he states, "and we have an environmental policy around all the hardware we buy."
He concludes: "What we have produced over the last three years, we could not have produced three years before that. We do have a legacy platform website that does some of that but not at the level we are doing now, no chance."
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