While cloud computing regularly tops lists of the most strategic technologies CIOs should be looking at, many IT chiefs remain sceptical of the benefits of hosted systems.

Not so for Paul Cheesbrough, CIO of the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) – one UK business to have really taken the cloud bull by the horns.

According to TMG’s IT chief, the main objectives of turning to cloud computing were to make the business more agile in terms of developing new technology and to work with vendors who were able to adapt faster than the traditional technology refresh timescale.

silicon.com recently caught up with Cheesbrough to see how the project is going and find out how the shift to the cloud has paid off.

TMG is now coming to the end of a three-year cloud-based technology transformation, which has seen a significant amount of its back office technology move into the cloud.

Telegraph CIO Paul Cheesbrough

Telegraph Media Group CIO Paul Cheesbrough
(Photo credit: TMG)

The first stage in TMG’s shift to the cloud came in the form of moving its 1,400 users to Google Apps in summer 2008. Every user within the company now uses Google’s email and calendar system as well as Google Docs and Google Sites.

As well as the Google Apps implementation, TMG also moved to Salesforce.com’s CRM technology for the sales and call centre teams in early 2009, as well as adopting a cloud-based HR management system provided by SuccessFactor at the start of the year.

Now, two and a half years since the cloud transformation began, TMG has a large number of its business applications sitting in the cloud.

However, according to Cheesbrough, not all technologies will follow them into the cloud.

“We took a view that a lot of things that are unique to us as a media company – things like content production and content packaging – we consciously decided to keep the technology, systems and the talent for managing those systems on site and in house and alongside that we were trying to use the cloud to transform a lot of the back office functions and to try and both save money but also do things more efficiently,” he told silicon.com.

One area that has remained relatively untouched by the move to the cloud until now has been the financial side of operations, something which Cheesbrough intends to remedy during the final six months of the project.

The company has decided to implement FinancialForce, a cloud-based financial application developed by Salesforce.com and Agresso.

TMG already runs an Agresso in-house financial package which is used for general ledger and company accounting, but Cheesbrough said he wants to make this in-house technology “more connected to the cloud” by using FinancialForce.

“We’ve taken part of our financial workflow and we’ve lifted it into the cloud. So we use [FinancialForce] to maximise the power of the cloud but also to bridge back into the on-premise finance application that we’ve got which we’re not ready to replace yet.”

As the company keeps much of its advertising sales-related financial data in the cloud with Salesforce.com’s CRM, it made sense to use FinancialForce, which runs on the same platform, to manage invoices and billing for customers, he said.

The current system sees the company…

…carry our regular batch run processes in which data is taken from Salesforce and fed into the Agresso system, with FinancialForce transferring this data automatically when it goes live.

FinancialForce will also provide a web front end to give clients information such as outstanding orders, money owed and a payment record, something that can’t currently be done with the in-house system due to the security implications of allowing customers access.

“FinancialForce gives us some financial functionality but also a safe and secure route into the data for the customers that we’ve got. And also, once it’s done all of that for you, it makes sure that our onsite finance system is all up to date with what we’ve billed and what we’ve sold,” Cheesbrough said.

He added that financial operations is one of the most complex areas to tackle with cloud computing due to rules about where data is stored, security concerns and the amount of related legacy technology.

“This is a step change for us but it’s certainly not going to displace the existing system. Over time we might put more and more into the cloud – it was a good middle ground to make sure that we had the safety of keeping the existing financial system going on site,” he said.

With much of TMG’s back office tech now in the cloud, TMG’s tech team is now able to work on developing technology as well as supporting it.

“We’ve shifted the resource balance of the technology department away from being 95 per cent operational – which is where we were two and a half years ago when we started the journey – towards, in six months time, we’ll be 30 per cent operational. So we will have released about 65 per cent of our resource to focus on more value-creating activities like our digital business and things like change management and new ways of working.”

Screengrab of Telegraph.co.uk

The TMG tech team now has more time to develop applications for internal and external use such as the Telegraph website
Screenshot: Telegraph.co.uk

The team still looks after things like network management, desk side support, software maintenance and running the datacentre but the team now has time to work on web operations and development for the telegraph.co.uk website.

“Software developments are a more important part of our business today than they were two years ago but we don’t have to manage the tin and the operating systems and all the databases and the platforms behind that anymore,” Cheesbrough noted.

Several members of the tech team specialise in developing internal technology using Salesforce.com’s Force.com on-demand CRM platform – for example, a cloud-based dashboard which draws together data on web traffic, inventory, rates at which it’s being sold and webpage load time – which means developers no longer have to build applications from the bottom up and internal applications can be built more quickly.

“It brings all that together on a web dashboard, that we’ve been able to create because our systems are in the cloud and they’re based on web technologies, where you can get the data in and out of them quite easily, so we’re able to do that pretty quickly,” Cheesbrough said.

“When you create these web apps they’re just a lot easier and less cumbersome to get going, and we use a common set of skills to do that as we do for our externally facing web development because the technical skills you need are pretty similar,” he added.

The company also uses…

…Salesforce.com’s Ideas technology for members of staff to contribute ideas from how their work life could be improved to new products for the website or newspaper.

As well as bringing benefits for the tech team, the cloud computing project has seen a significant reduction in the size of TMG’s onsite datacentre.

Although cost was less of a priority than improved agility, the project has nevertheless had an impact there, according to the CIO.

“We’ve just reduced our datacentre footprint through a consolidation exercise – we’ve got one-eighth of the footprint that we had previously. Part of that is the move towards the cloud because we require less horsepower, the other part is just taking advantage of things like virtualisation… that’s had a huge impact in terms of cost of space and power. We know for sure that this has easily paid for itself just in the reallocation of resource.”

The project hasn’t been without its challenges though. With such a significant shift in the way that the company’s technology is delivered, one of the major focuses for the IT department has been to help users adjust to the new way of doing things.

“You have to constantly think about training and communication and support as you do with any traditional solution.

“There are a lot of vendors out there in the cloud space that say because it’s web-based, it’s as easy to use as eBay or Amazon and all of these sort of analogies that get trawled out, but you mustn’t go into this thinking that every user knows how to embrace those kinds of systems – you need to spend as much time on supporting and training them.

“At the end of the day, it’s still technology and it’s still a cultural change that you need around it to make it work.”

When the company implemented Google Mail, for example, some workers took to the new system easily, while others found it harder to get used to.

“The work that we did with Google suggested that for some people it was a three-hour transition, for others it was a six-month transition before they got use to it.

“This work that we’ve done with Google shows that there is a curve, it’s like a hockey stick, where people are excited to start with because they’ve got an unlimited inbox, they’ve got the search functionality, they’ve got the same experience at home as they do at work.

“Then you take the old system away and they’re in the dark for a little bit and, for some people, that can be a matter of minutes but for others – less web-aware people – it can be a matter of months, so you’ve got to give them the right training and support to get them through that. But if we were to do an Outlook upgrade, it would be a similar story, so there’s no reason to be overly worried about that.”

According to Cheesbrough, 96 per cent of users now say Google Mail is an improvement compared to the Outlook system it replaced.

With the final six months of the cloud computing effort ahead, Cheesbrough and his team will be focusing on the implementation of FinancialForce while there will be additional HR and training functionality put into the cloud.

But with the end of the tech transformation looming, Cheesbrough said the company will continue to follow developments in cloud computing beyond the lifetime of the project, “because what’s hot today isn’t necessarily hot tomorrow”, he said.