MESTEC is a UK-based business that has a long history in helping manufacturing companies become more productive and perform better, through the use of its manufacturing execution software. For its customers, this includes everything from improving labour productivity, reducing scrap, improving on-time delivery, improving asset availability, reducing customer complaints and improving compliance.
However, five years ago the company recognised that the world was changing and that it needed - along with the rest of the technology industry - to shift towards becoming a cloud computing provider.
However, providing Software-as-a-Service brings with it a whole new set of demands and requirements, which MESTEC knew that it wasn’t fully equipped to deal with. This week we got the chance to speak to Mark Carleton, Chief Operating Officer at MESTEC, to get a better understanding of how the company saw opportunity with Oracle and Microsoft’s Platform-as-a-Service environments, shifting to a multi-cloud model.
Explaining the company’s motivation to provide a SaaS solution for the industry (which is now used by the likes of Siemens), Carleton said:
“Manufacturing companies have huge pressures to deliver improved performance, but at the same time driving up standards of quality and delivery performance. They’re also facing challenges in recruiting the skills they need to run their businesses, so they need to be smarter about the way they manage their people - allow people to be more multi-skilled, switch between jobs more easily, on-board people more quickly, and they face massive burdens of compliance. Nobody is ever taking away an audit requirement or a regulation.
“Smart factory’ sounds very good on paper, but in reality it’s rock hard to implement. Most of the solutions are complex to implement, time consuming and expensive. What we wanted to deliver was a solution that worked out of the box. You could subscribe, no upfront costs, open your browser and off you go. That’s what motivated us to create a SaaS-based manufacturing execution system.
Carleton said that MESTEC achieved what it set out to, creating an environment that is really easy for customers to onboard. However, what MESTEC realised was that this is because all the responsibility for configuring, owning, setting up, managing, and provisioning infrastructure now fell on to it. Carleton said that MESTEC started making use of an IaaS provider, but that this still wasn’t ideal. He said :
We now own that responsibility. We aren’t an IT services company. So it was reasonably obvious to us that the solution to SaaS was to go Infrastructure-as-a-Service.
But that still left us with lots of burden of configuration, of the ownership of the backups, of the set up, of the maintenance, and the monitoring. Bits of that were done by the service provider, but a big chunk of that remained on our shoulders. So, the next step was to move to Platform-as-a-Service, so that we could extract the technology layers that we wanted and just have those things work out of the box, without having to worry about the nitty gritty underneath.
We also wanted to provide a higher availability environment. If you take the old Oracle database in our IaaS environment, we had a database server where if you wanted to patch it, you had to bring it down. And that was okay when we had one, or two, or three, or five customers. But by the time you’ve got to 30 customers that are all running 24/7 and the application is mission critical for them, suddenly patching was something that was almost impossible.
Then you’re faced with this horrible choice between making the system unavailable or making it insecure by not patching it. That focused our minds.
Pick and choose
Carleton said that whilst IaaS is commoditised, this is not true for PaaS. He explained that PaaS is a differentiated space, which meant that MESTEC was going to have to accept going down the path of multi-cloud, to take advantage of the best features in the market. MESTEC decided to work with Oracle and Microsoft on their separate platform environments, operating over the public cloud. Carleton explained:
We did a proof of concept that basically had three bits to it. We ported our web application to Web App Services (MSFT), which was a breeze. We ported our database to ATP (Oracle). Then there was just a little bit of working with Microsoft and Oracle to make sure that it worked okay over public cloud.
Carleton added that MESTEC’s primary concern about operating in a multi-cloud environment was performance - the company has always had its application and database in the same data centre. He said that this concern turned out to be unwarranted.
If we split those things apart, what’s that going to do for latency and performance? To our relief, and our surprise, we found that it behaved better over public internet than our legacy infrastructure had in a single data centre. The benefits of the best of breed PaaS in those two environments far outweighs the disadvantages of having those things on different clouds.
It’s worth noting that MESTEC made this decision prior to Oracle and Microsoft announced their mutual ‘interconnect’ agreement in June last year, which is essentially a formal interoperability partnership between the two cloud providers to allow customers to more easily run mission critical workloads across both their environments.
Whilst MESTEC’s arrangement was working, Carleton said that the agreement does bring comfort too. Mostly in the case if anything goes wrong. He said:
It’s a comfort blanket. I was genuinely concerned about the day we have an issue, with something related to the network, and I was going to call Microsoft and they would say it’s Oracle’s fault, or I call Oracle and they say it’s Microsoft’s fault. I was genuinely concerned about what would happen under those circumstances.
It’s worth noting that MESTEC is the first company I’ve spoken to that makes use of Oracle’s autonomous database, which was announced in 2018 and built upon last year at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco. The promise of the autonomous database has been incredibly hyped by Larry Ellison and Oracle, so I was keen to get Carleton’s verdict.
One of the key promises from Ellison is that the autonomous database reduces the need for people working on the database, because of its ‘autonomous’ nature. And this seems to be true for MESTEC, where Carleton said that the company does not have a DBA anymore. Not one.
And more broadly, it’s a glowing review from MESTEC. Carleton said:
First of all, it’s very performant. We are seeing some workloads run five times faster on the ATP infrastructure than we did on our legacy Oracle database. And that’s with fewer CPUs. The auto-scaling is huge. Back when we were doing IaaS, if we wanted more CPU, it was impossible to get changes made quickly and to understand what was causing performance bottlenecks. Now the database just scales up and down as we need it to.
The availability piece is important. The auto-patching means we are finally compliant with our own information security policy. We are not an enormous company, but we now have access to Exadata performance - we could never have dreamt of that pre-ATP.