Pan-European and African telco giant, Vodafone, is undergoing a change in how it manages its huge swathes of Oracle databases, shifting from a traditional ‘on-premise’ scenario to an Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) Dedicated Region. The platform is pitched as a fully managed cloud region that brings all of Oracle’s public cloud services into Vodafone’s own network and data centers.
Speaking with Scott Petty, Vodafone CIO, this will provide a ‘public cloud like environment’ that will host the company’s thousands of Oracle databases, as well as to support and scale its mission-critical OSS and BSS systems, including CRM and order management. The Dedicated Region essentially provides Vodafone with many of the capabilities it would benefit from in the public cloud, whilst giving it time to upgrade its applications to public cloud over the next ten years.
The end goal is that all of Vodafone’s technology environment will be public cloud native - but it doesn’t want to risk doing it all at once, given the critical nature of its infrastructure.
When asked if the OCI Dedicated Region provides many differences to going public cloud native, Petty said that the operating environment is essentially the same. He explained:
Technically there are no differences. The way you do CI/CD and infrastructure-as-code is exactly the same. What it gives you is a lot more flexibility on latency dependent applications. In a mobile network for instance, where you provision, the interface with the provisioning system, is very time critical.
If it doesn’t process quickly enough - if you don’t get your pre-paid top up quickly enough - you get pretty annoyed with us as a customer.
Petty said that whilst Vodafone is building new digital platforms on AWS, GCP and Azure, it has a huge number of Oracle databases that it needed to modernize in the least disruptive way. He added:
Moving from on-prem to cloud native is a big step for a company to go through. You’re touching every business user, you have to upgrade the application, you have to change the business process - you can only do so many of those at any given time or you crash the business.
We got very excited about OCI because it enabled us to build cloud infrastructure in our own data centers, modernize the databases, but only touch the application if the business wanted to touch the application.
Petty added that Vodafone has received all the benefits of cloud infrastructure - infrastructure-as-code, autonomous databases, scaling - and has been able to modernize its Oracle infrastructure, whilst buying time to upgrade its applications as and when it needs to. He added:
If I’d done that with AWS, I’d first of all need to move off the database, move it into the cloud, and then I’d have to upgrade the application to a cloud native application.
To give you an idea, we have about 6,000 Oracle databases, with a whole range of applications. So the roadmap for cloud native for many of those applications could be the next decade - so then you’re faced with a really difficult decision of wanting to move to the cloud, wanting to be cloud native, but can’t transform the business fast enough. So being able to build OCI capability in our data center has given us optionality in terms of speed and velocity.
Petty explained that ten years from now Vodafone will be 100 percent cloud native, with all of its applications built cloud native using microservices, but that this is a ‘long journey’ from where the company is today. He said:
Unless you’re a brand new startup, it’s impossible to be in that situation because you have twenty years of technology investment that you have to keep. Because we’re using it, supporting the business, we need to migrate it over time.
And being able to use cloud-based databases, and all the benefits that brings, without having to force an application upgrade on business units, reduces resistance in the short-term. He said:
The big lever though is how much you’re asking the business to change. Because moving from an on premise application to a cloud native often has lots of technology benefits, it doesn’t necessarily have business change benefits. They’re still running the same process they ran before.
It may be that it’s a little bit faster, it may be that it’s a little bit slicker, but they have to go through a whole change process. And the business might not want to do that. Being able to modernize without having to transform the business gives us a lot more flexibility than if we were doing a pure cloud native journey.
Vodafone is already seeing benefits from the transition, according to Petty. The first is that it has been able to decommission a lot of its servers, where it found that half of them weren’t needed anymore. In addition to this, it is also saving on operational costs, given that lifecycle management and running databases is an expensive business - much of this has been automated. Using this automation, Finally, the company is also seeing improved performance and stability. Petty said:
Old databases and old applications tend to have higher numbers of major incidents and they tend to take longer to fix. So we think we will see a big reduction there.
However, Petty does admit that the shift to the OCI Dedicated Region did require changing peoples’ mindsets about the cloud capabilities in Vodafone’s own data centers. Petty said:
The biggest challenge initially was us changing our sales strategy, which was very public cloud. It’s a very different mindset and it took us a while to convince everyone that OCI would be a really good idea and solve a set of problems. People can be religious about cloud native.
The first time we pitched it we had people saying ‘hang on, that’s not cloud’. But it is, you just need to explain the difference and explain all the benefits. I want scalability, I want predictability, I want the ability to horizontally scale the applications. If I can do all those things, do I really care which data center it’s in and where it is? It’s given all those benefits.
We deploy everything as infrastructure-as-code, which is exactly the same as we do in AWS and exactly the same we do in GCP. In my old model I would build an Exadata [database platform] to support the application for the busiest day of the year and the rest of the year it would sit there idle. Now I can scale up and down. We have all those capabilities. But it’s a cultural change and a mindset change.
It’s important to note how critical this project has been to Vodafone, where Petty said that every single penny of revenue goes through an Oracle database at the company. In addition to the benefits cited above, Vodafone has found that it has given its 350-strong engineering team more meaningful work. He said:
I was really worried about the engineering team. We had a really strong team and I was worried about them, because they might see this as just hiring Oracle tech. But it’s been the total opposite. They’ve really bought into OCI as a capability and focusing on building infrastructure-as-code, how we automate, how we integrate into the CI/CD pipelines.
They’re super motivated by it and they’re the team driving the OCI implementation. They now see that they’ve got a future in the skill set, they're moving into more exciting work and new modern areas.