The next edition of the HP Discover Performance Podcast Series explores how wireless services provider T-Mobile US, Inc. improved how it delivers cloud- and data-access services to its enterprise customers.
It's a story about walking back manual cloud provisioning services and moving to a centralized service portal to manage and deploy infrastructure better. In doing so, they have improved their service offerings across multiple platforms and enabled a lifecycle approach to delivering advanced cloud services.
To learn how T-Mobile did it, we recently sat down with Daniel Spurling, Director of IT Infrastructure at T-Mobile US, Inc. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: HP is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: What are the major IT requirements driving your mobile carrier business right now?
Spurling: To answer that question, I'm going to frame up a little history and go into where T-Mobile has come from in the last few years and what has driven some of that business shift in our space.
As many know, in 2011 AT&T attempted to acquire T-Mobile. When that dissolved, there was a heavy recognition that we needed to drive greater innovation on our business side. We had received a generous donation, we’ll call it, of $4 billion and a lot a spectrum. We drove a lot of innovation on our network side, on the RF side, but the IT side also had to evolve.
We, as an IT group, were looking at where we needed to start evolving within the infrastructure space. We recognized that manual processes are a very rudimentary way of delivering servers or compute storage, etc. This was not going to meet the agility needs that our business was exhibiting. So we started on this path of driving a significant cultural shift, and mindset shift, as well as the actual technological shift in the infrastructure space—with cloud as one of the core anchor points within that.
Gardner: When you decided that cloud was the right model to gain this agility, what were some of the problems that you faced?
Spurling: We recognized that cloud is almost like a progression of where we've been going within IT. It is not like it is a surprise.
We've been trying to figure out how to enable more self-service. We've been trying to figure out how to drive greater automation. We've been trying to figure out how to utilize those ubiquitous network access points, the ubiquitous services, external or internal of the company, but in a more standardized and consolidated fashion.
It wasn't so much that we were surprised and said, "Oh, we need to go cloud." It was more on the lines of we recognized that we needed to double-down our efforts in those key tenets within cloud. For T-Mobile, those key tenets really were how we drive greater standardization, consolidation and to enable greater automation—and then to provide self-service capabilities to our customers.
Gardner: Were there particular types or sets of applications that you identified as being the first and foremost to go into this new model?
Spurling: That's a great question. A lot of people look at the applications, as either an application play or an infrastructure play, because of the ecosystem that existed when the cloud ecosystem was kind of birthing. We started more on the infrastructure side. So we looked at it and said, "How do we enable the application growth that you are talking about? How do we enable that from an infrastructure perspective?"
And we saw that we needed to focus more on the infrastructure side and enable our partners within our IT teams—our development partners, our application support partners, etc.—to be able to transform the application stacks to be more cloud-capable and cloud-aware.
We started giving them the self-service capability on the infrastructure side, started on that infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) type capability, and then expanded into the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) capability across our database, application, and presentation layers.
Gardner: The good news with cloud is that you do away with manual processes and you have self-service and automation. The bad news is that you have self-service and automation, and they can get very complex and unwieldy and, like with virtual machines (VMs), sometimes there is a sprawl issue. How did you go about this in such a way that you didn’t suffer in terms of these new automation capabilities?
Spurling: I'm going to break it into two parts. Look at the complexity of an IT organization today, especially for a company of T-Mobile's size. T-mobile has 46,000 employees, around 43 million customers. It's not a small entity. The complexity that we have in the IT space mirrors that large complexity that we have in the business space.
We recognized on the infrastructure side, as well as in the application, test and support sides, that we cannot automate everything . We had to really drive heavy consolidation and standardization. We had to make some tough choices about the stuff that we were—for lack of a better term—going to pare off our infrastructure tree: different operating systems, different hardware platforms, and data centers that we were going to shut down.
We had to drive that heavy rationalization across all of the towers within our IT space, in order to enable the automation you talked about, without creating a significant amount of complexity.
On the sprawl question though, we made a conscious decision that we were going to allow or permit some level of sprawl, because of the business agility that was gained.
When you look at server sprawl, there are concerns around licensing, computer utilization, and stranding resources or assets. There are a lot of concerns around sprawl, but when you look at how much business benefit we got from enabling that agility—or that speed to deliver, and speed to market—the minimal amount of sprawl that was incurred was worth it from a business perspective.
We still try to manage it. We still make sure that we're utilizing our compute storage data centers, etc., as efficiently as possible, but we've almost back-burnered the sprawl issue in favor of enabling business.
Gardner: So with multiple platforms—Windows, Linux, AIX, UNIX—and multiple data centers across large geographies, how can you do that without a larger staff? Do you find that such centralization possible, or is it pie in the sky?
Spurling: It’s a bit of both. When you look at how much work there is to enable an automation solution, you almost have to be—and my team hates it when I use the term—ambidextrous. On one hand, you have to continue to deliver for your customers, but you need to prioritize what you are doing in that maintenance space and shave off a bit to invest in the innovation space.
You're going to have to make some capital investments, and maybe some resource investments as well, to drive that innovation the next step forward. But you almost have to do it within the space that you are coexisting in that maintains and innovates at the same time, because you can't drop one in favor of the other.
We did have to make some tradeoffs on the maintenance side, in order to take some qualified and some bright resources that we are excited about in our burgeoning cloud future, and then invest those resources to continue driving us forward in the technological and also cultural space. We made a significant cultural change too.
Gardner: That was going to be my next question. When it comes to making these transitions in technology, platform, and approach, I often hear companies say they have a lagging cultural shift. What did that involve in terms of your internal IT department making that shift to more of a service bureau supporting your business—like a business within a business?
Spurling: A lot of times when you talk about evolution in either business context or kind of an academic context, you hear the story about the buggy whip. The buggy whip, back in the day, was something that everybody knew. About 125 years ago, everybody probably knew someone who made buggy whips or who sold buggy whips. Today, no one knows anybody who makes or sells buggy whips.
The buggy whip industry went away, but a brand-new industry emerged in the automobile space. In the same context. the old IT way of manually building servers, provisioning storage, and loading applications may be going away, but there is a brand-new environment that's been created in a higher value space.
As to the cultural shift you talked about, we had to make significant investments in our leadership to be able to help set a vision, show our employees where that vision intersected with their personal careers and how they continue to move on.
Then, you lead and help them to do that kind of emotional change. I'm not a server builder anymore. I'm now a consultant with the business on delivering a value, I'm now an automation engineer, or I'm now delivering future value and looking at new products that we can drive further automation into. That cultural change is ongoing, and it’s certainly not done.
Gardner: And given that this transition and transformation is fairly broad in terms of its impact, you don’t just buy this out of a box. How did the combination of people, process, technology and outside your knowledge come together?
Spurling: We knew that, from a leadership perspective, we weren’t going to get the time-to-market that we wanted by training our resources, helping them learn and make mistakes. We had to rely on professional services. So we partnered with HP very heavily to drive greater, instant-on services in our cloud solution.
On the technology side, we have everybody under the sun from a tooling perspective, but we do have a significant investment in HP software. We made a decision to move forward with the HP Cloud Suite. Pieces like HP Operations Orchestration (HPOO) or Cloud Service Automation (CSA), and building out those platforms to be the overarching cloud solution that, for lack of a better term, created that federation of loosely coupled systems that enabled cloud delivery.
With those tools, and with HP professional services, and with our own internal team members, we created a tactical team that went out there and "attacked cloud," delivered that, and continues to deliver that now.
Gardner: Can you look at results, either business, technological, or financial from going to a cloud model, provisioning with that automation, advancing the technology, making those cultural hurdles? What do you get for it?
Spurling: When we look at the cloud opportunity, and the agility that has been gained—the ability to deliver things in an almost immediate fashion—one of the byproducts that we may not exactly have intended was that our internal customers have demanded a lot of complexity, or a lot of significant specific systems.
When we said, you can get that significant system, whatever it is, in a couple of weeks—or you can get this cloud solution that delivers 95 percent of what you asked for in a couple of hours, almost always those things that we thought were "hard" requirements melted away. The customer said, "You know what, I'm okay with this 95-percent deal because it gets me to my business objective faster."
We're realizing now that that complexity may not have been required all along, because we are able to deliver so quickly. The byproduct of that is that we're seeing massive amounts of standardization that we could never have thought would organically be possible.
From an agility perspective, there's time to market. We had a significant launch with the iPhone, a big event in T-Mobile’s history, probably one of the largest launches that we've had. That required a significant amount of investment in our back-end systems because of the load that was put in our activations and payment inside our systems.
Because of the investments we made in standardization and automation, our cloud portfolio, we were able to build out that capacity in record time, in days versus what would have taken in weeks or months two years previously. We were able to support our business with very little lead time, and the results were very impressive for us as a business. So those two areas, that standardization and consolidation and that rapid ability to deliver on business objectives, are the two key ones that we take away.
Gardner: What does the future hold?
Spurling: Cloud is just one step in continuing to evolve IT to be more of a business partner.
That's really how we are looking at it. We're making great strides in that space. In every single area, we're setting ourselves up to be closer to the business, to move that self-service capability. I'm not just talking about a webpage. I am talking about being able to consume an IT service as a business leader in a simple way. We're moving that closer-and-closer to the business and we are being less and less of a gatekeeper for technology, which is super-exciting for us.
We're recognizing that the investments we made in our PaaS plays as well as test automation as well as some of the development platforms. We're seeing those start to have payoffs in the fact that we're developing cloudware applications that are now scalable in a way that we've never seen before, without massive human invention.
So we're able to tell our business, "Go ahead and have a great marketing idea, and let’s move it forward. Let’s try that thing out. If it doesn't work, it’s not going to hurt IT. It's not going to take 18 months to deliver that." We're seeing IT able to respond about as fast as the business wants to go.
We are not there yet today. It’s a continuing journey, but that’s our trajectory in the next six to 12 months, and then who knows what’s going to happen, but we are excited to see.