Energy Plus Migrates to the Cloud

By William Atkinson  |  Posted 02-26-2013

Energy Plus Migrates to the Cloud

By William Atkinson

A year ago, the biggest IT challenges facing Energy Plus was the need to build IT infrastructure and run its growing business without depleting its bank accounts, and gaining the ability to eventually scale three or four times larger in size without having to start over in the IT area. Based in Philadelphia, Energy Plus is an electricity and gas retailer that supplies electricity and natural gas services to customers in seven energy-competitive states.

"When I joined the company a year ago, I realized that, because we are a rapidly growing business, we needed to find a way to provide scale cost-effectively," says Hugh Scott, CIO. "We didn't have a huge data center and a staff of people who specialized in running servers."

The solution? "It was an obvious choice to consider the cloud," Scott replies. "Then, when I looked at the economics on one hand and the 'speed to scale' on the other, there really was no reason not to choose the cloud."

Moving to the Cloud

Most organizations move to the cloud by connecting the cloud to existing computing environments. Energy Plus elected to adopt a hybrid cloud computing strategy for running production applications. The hybrid model allows Energy Plus to move applications to the cloud at its own pace, and scale its infrastructure on demand with the cloud as customer growth requires.

The hybrid model uses enterprise cloud services, from SunGard Availability Services, in addition to existing managed services that the company already used from SunGard. Enterprise cloud services are built on Vblock technology from VMware, Cisco, and EMC. It provides managed computer, network, storage and security services designed to support customer production applications.

Energy Plus selected enterprise cloud services for the following reasons:
          *High availability. Energy Plus can move its web applications to the cloud. About 70 percent of all prospective customers first engage with Energy Plus through its website, making availability a top priority.
          *Scalability. Enterprise cloud services provide Energy Plus with a platform to support continued customer growth. The company currently has 180,000 customers and is growing quickly. The company also recently added natural gas to join its electricity services.
          *Security. A number of customers pay their utility bills online, making customer information protection essential. Security also plays an important role in supporting the customized reward programs that Energy Plus has with more than 100 partners and associations. For this, Energy Plus utilizes SunGard Managed Security Services, which provides managed firewall and managed intrusion detection and prevention.
          *SunGard Availability Services also offers workforce continuity services that can provide workspace for Energy Plus employees in the event that the company's facilities are unavailable due to business disruption, such as a power outage or natural disaster.

Cloud Challenges

Moving to the cloud did not pose any challenges, according to Scott. However, there was a substantial challenge prior to this. "We had not even virtualized a number of our applications," says Scott. "So, to go from running our applications on 'bare metal' to running them on the cloud was almost like taking two steps at once." That is, the real challenge was not migrating applications to the cloud, but first migrating applications to the virtual environment. "To achieve this, we had to get our development team comfortable with the virtual architecture and then help them understand how that would work," he says.

                                                                

Energy Plus Migrates to the Cloud

To date, Energy Plus has migrated most of its key applications to the cloud. "Our most critical application is our website, where we enroll most of our customers," he states. "We migrated that to the cloud during the summer. We have also migrated e-mail and some of our corporate systems, including the general ledger."

The shift to the cloud has also changed the way that Scott himself works, compared to the responsibilities he had with previous employers. "Rather than focusing on building 'iron horses' such as data centers and air conditioning units, I have been able to focus on building strategic relationships with companies such as SunGard," he explains. In fact, these days, he believes that a large part of every CIO's job should really be about relationship management. "For example, if we had everything here and something went wrong, such as an outage, I would have to say that I dropped the ball," he states. "With the cloud, I still have the responsibility for making sure that outages don't occur. However, to do that in a cloud environment, I need to be as familiar with the inner workings of SunGard as I do my own organization."

Results and Benefits

"By using the cloud, we have all of the advantages of scale that multi-billion dollar companies have," states Scott.

The decision saved a lot of time, too. "If we had moved to a traditional virtual environment, we would have had to spec hardware, order it, receive it, and set it up," he explains. That could have taken months. "By migrating to the cloud, we were able to set up the new environment of high-availability architecture within 10 days," he states.

There was also one unexpected benefit: Energy Plus employees love that they are involved in a cloud environment. "We did an early pilot in January 2011 on using cloud technology," says Scott. "I was amazed at just how keen the employees were to try out some of the cloud technologies. They were even volunteering personal time just so they could get the experience of 'playing in the cloud.'" As a result, Scott found that, besides having practical applications, the cloud has also really helped to build employee morale.

Similarly, it has also helped Energy Plus attract new talent. "We are a medium-sized, fast-growing company and are adding staff all the time," Scott states. "Being able to tell prospective candidates that we are using a cloud platform is definitely a big selling point."