For years now we have been discussing the pros and cons of shifting on premise infrastructure and applications to the cloud. A lot of the rhetoric is misguided(see Phil's piece on cloud myths), but there are arguments to be made for both sides. And it often depends on the business in question. But this week I got the chance to listen to Thomas Mayer, chief operating officer for the Lotus Formula 1 team, discuss his plans for getting to the cloud. What was interesting about the presentation, which was delivered at this week's Cloud World Forum in London, was that there is such a clear incentive for Lotus to put almost everything in the cloud, given the unique nature of its business.
Lotus has been in the F1 game for 23 years and has won five championship titles over that time. I must admit that I'm not a Formula 1 fan in the slightest, but I do have an appreciation for the sport after having interviewed a few teams about their technology strategy. What's interesting about Formula 1 is that so much of a team's competitive advantage comes down to data and being the best, and quickest, at understanding that data. I remember speaking to Red Bull at a separate event and someone on their team told me that thanks to the sensors on the cars and the amount of simulations that they do, when given data on the day of any race (e.g. starting positions, previous lap times, weather conditions, etc.), they could pretty accurately predict where a driver was going to place before the race had even started.
To give you an idea of the amount of data that Lotus F1 produces (and this is a fraction of the overall figures if you also include design and modelling), it has approximately 150 sensors on the car, which measure every 100th of a second, producing 25MB of data a lap – or 50GB of data a race.
With 11 teams, 22 drivers, 19 races, across 6 continents, but only one winner, Formula 1 teams plough money into getting even the slightest competitive advantage. Also, with the industry being worth approximately $5tn on an annual basis, there is a big incentive in getting your driver to that top spot. So what does it take? Lotus' COO Mayer said:
“Our business is highly competitive, it is all about being faster . But also, how fast we can develop, iteration for us means improvement, the faster we iterate means the more we can improve. We are highly data driven and have produced petabytes of data since we came into existence. That's why we're moving into the cloud.”
Cloud could save Lotus millions
Mayer explained to attendees at Cloud World Forum that the Lotus team had divided its IT stack into two layers, where everything from the hypervisor layer down to compute, storage and the network is now seen as a commodity. It had traditionally put a lot of resources and people power into focusing on these layers, but now realises that it can't gain a competitive advantage using commodity IT – so the solution? The cloud. Lotus is also using Microsoft Office 365 and plans to put Dynamics in the cloud in the next release. The team is also piloting with cloud-based HPC, as it has seasonal loads in terms of compute power need, where at the beginning of a season it uses a lot to develop the car and then goes in peaks and troughs from there on out.However, the really interesting stuff is how Lotus is planning to use cloud to better mobilise itself when it travels from track to track for races. Traditionally, the team carries a load of equipment and data with it as it moves around the world to compete – everything from servers, to terminals, and everything in between. Not only this, because it doesn't have the compute power to analyse everything on site, it has to send data back to its HQ in Enstone, Oxfordshire, to carry out the heavy duty tasks. However, it now has a plan to virtualise all of its infrastructure and take advantage of Microsoft's data centres near each of the tracks, meaning that all it will have to set up at each race is a terminal. Not only will this enable faster decision making, but it will also save the team millions of dollars a year in shipping equipment around the world. Mayer said:
“For us it's all about making the car faster, we don't want to waste time and effort in something that is a commodity. We want to invest in what can differentiate us from other teams. For us technology acts as an enabler and we always strive to pick the latest technology which is in the marketplace. This is why we embark at very fast speed into the cloud.”
However, there are two factors that are currently stopping Lotus from pushing into the cloud right away – security and latency. On the security front it is working on some clever encryption techniques that I didn't totally understand, but are very important to Mayer, as if a competitor got hold of the data, they could potentially catch up on 10 years of sensitive work very quickly. And on the latency side, Lotus is keen to get to the cloud as soon as possible, but it is currently running some tests to make sure that the relay of information isn't too slow for the team – as it will be working in an environment where it's is fractions of a second that matter. Mayer said:
“Latency is the prohibiting factor at the moment. We want to gain a two second window ahead of our forecasting, meaning we can gain two seconds to make decisions. At the moment latency is an issue. But as the infrastructure is growing, if we can achieve the latency and security we want, then we will move straight there. The technology exists, it's nothing revolutionary, it's just the state of the art technology that's in the market. That will give us a huge advantage.
“At the moment it costs us millions every year to ship equipment around the world, it's very expensive. That's money that we would like toinvest in the car, making the car faster, instead of shipping hardware around the world.”
- What I like about this cloud case study is that the competition is so clear cut because the teams are literally finding ways to improve their performance by a matter of seconds, which could make the world of difference in getting to that all important prize. In other industries the prize isn't always as obvious and companies tend to be a bit more relaxed about their speed of delivery. However, I really think that a lot of companies out there could learn a thing or two from Formula 1 about what it means to really strive for the best and using the latest technologies available to do so.
Image Credits: http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk