Today, almost everything we do has a connection to the cloud in some way or another. And as businesses across all industries, of varying sizes and spanning countless geographies hedge their bets on cloud as a way to organise, process and present data, cloud is set to become an even more integral part of our day-to-day lives.
The global cloud computing market is forecast to exceed $350-billion in 2021 and it is predicted to almost triple in just five years, reaching over $1 025-billion by 2026. Industry experts expect that around 80% of organisations will migrate to the cloud by 2025.
AFGRI Agri Services made the decision to migrate their business processes to the cloud over a decade ago. Historically, the agricultural services company met their data storage needs by purchasing servers and then renting space in a local data centre. While this on-premises approach did provide AFGRI with complete control over their data and equipment, it was a costly strategy and it didn’t offer the speed, scalability and reliability they were after. So in 2010, they got rid of all their servers and moved everything into a private cloud environment.
Now they had a similar level of control but with greater scalability and the ability to customise their cloud environment to meet their specific business needs. However, they still didn’t have everything they needed. According to Morne de Klerk – Technology, Infrastructure and Security Manager at AFGRI, the private cloud worked just fine but lacked the speed to market and reliability they wanted. “It just took too long to commission servers or to deploy a new application in a private cloud environment, because there are too many rules,” he explains. “You also need to remember that in the private cloud, your setup and maintenance costs are still quite high. And because your infrastructure ages, it has to be replaced. But, you are at the mercy of the provider and have to fit into their replacement cycles. This means that you might be running on outdated hardware for extended periods.”
Cloud services are an increasingly essential feature of the ongoing transformation of the African business-to-business (B2B) marketplace. In fact, African enterprises spent around $2.5-billion on all forms of cloud in 2020 and as much as 80% of African enterprises are already using cloud services in some fashion.
So they decided to go public — with all cloud resources (hardware, software and other supporting infrastructure) owned and operated by a third-party cloud service provider and delivered over the Internet.
“During the RFP (request for proposal) process with all the vendors, cost, stability and speed to market were the major criteria we were looking at,” adds De Klerk. And after comparing everything that the major vendors had to offer, HUAWEI CLOUD came out on top.
A complex environment
“As a centralised IT team, we support four core service businesses within the broader AFGRI business,” says Pierre Durand – Head of IT and Innovation at AFGRI.
The first of these is AFGRI Grain Management, which delivers secure storage for agricultural products across AFGRI’s infrastructure of grain silos, bunkers and bagging depots across South Africa. The second business segment is AFGRI Equipment, a supplier of mechanised equipment tailored to meet the needs of farmers throughout the largest single John Deere franchise in Africa. UNIGRO, AFGRI’s agricultural finance partner is third; it provides tailor-made agricultural financing and insurance to farmers countrywide. Finally, AFGRI Retail encompasses a retail footprint of 33 stores and 28 fuel stations across Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Free State. AFGRI Retail stores sell everything from fertilisers, pest control and seeds to animal feed, medicine, tools and clothing.
“I mention these four different businesses because it showcases the breadth of what we do at AFGRI and demonstrates just how disparate our businesses are. These businesses all have different needs, which is why we had to find a partner that could handle quite a bit of complexity,” Durand notes.
All of our different businesses have unique core applications, says De Klerk, and everything sits in the HUAWEI CLOUD or in another public cloud environment. “This approach is far more cost effective than our previous strategy, as we can manage our environment more tactically,” says Stephan Richter – AFGRI GM Information Technology .
Zhou says the major benefits of moving to the public cloud include:
Reduced IT costs: Rather than purchasing expensive systems and equipment, businesses can reduce costs by using the resources of a trusted cloud computing service provider.
Rapid service innovation: With a cloud partner like HUAWEI CLOUD, enterprises can innovate by quickly purchasing technologies such as IoT, blockchain and AI online.
Scalability: Operation and storage use can easily be scaled up or down depending on the business’s needs. This boosts flexibility.
Business continuity: Should a natural disaster, power failure or crisis strike, having data stored in the cloud ensures it is backed up and stored in a secure location so businesses can access it quickly and minimise any downtime and loss of productivity.
Security: Enterprises don’t need to purchase expensive security hardware and software because experienced cloud providers will have made significant investments to protect their data.
Collaboration: With more and more people working remotely, collaboration can be tough. Cloud makes it possible for employees, contractors and third parties to work together without having to be in the same place.
Flexibility: Similarly, if your employees want to be more flexible in their work practices, they need access to data while they are off-site. Cloud allows anyone to connect from anywhere, quickly and easily.
Automatic updates: Depending on your cloud computing service provider, systems will regularly be updated with the latest technology. This includes software updates, as well as upgrades to servers and computer processing power.
In the public cloud, AFGRI has the opportunity to tap into the innovations offered by partners such as Huawei, which are constantly improving their environments in an effort to give their customers a more advanced, more reliable and more stable service. “So we can do business without thinking about IT. I used to get about 300 emails a day; complaints, issues, the usual things. Now, I get about 30 or 40 and a lot of them are complimentary. This means that I have capacity to focus my attention on projects that I previously wouldn’t have had time to get to,” says De Klerk.
“Moving to the HUAWEI CLOUD hasn’t changed how our businesses do business. But it has given them the reliability they need. We don’t have a single server on site. We trust that our partners will deliver the uptime and performance we need to do business without interruption,” says Richter.
Making the migration
AFGRI started their migration to the HUAWEI CLOUD at a rather inopportune time — during Level Five lockdown. While one would have expected the Covid-19 restrictions to hamper their efforts, the move happened seamlessly. “We moved all our servers with minimal impact to the user community,” says De Klerk. At a time when so many businesses were trying to mitigate disruption, the fact that they could make this migration without any problems was invaluable.
When IT can provide the reliability business needs to work smoothly and without interruption, the business has greater trust in IT and in what IT is capable of doing, Durand states. “When we moved to the private cloud a few years ago, we had three days of downtime. Like, full downtime, with no services available. This isn’t good for business. During the migration to the HUAWEI CLOUD, we had no downtime at all,” De Klerk says. “This reliability and availability helps IT to meet business’s requests as quickly as possible. When we can deliver value back to business and business can deliver value to our customers, everyone wins,” adds Durand.
According to Dhashen Perumal – Senior Account Manager at Huawei, optimisation was key when it came to AFGRI. “Understanding AFGRI’s existing environment, it simply didn’t make sense to do a like-for-like solution in the cloud. It would have been far too expensive. So we had to look at what they needed and come up with a strategy that would improve their performance, up their efficiency and that would still be cost effective.”
Developing this strategy required weekly sessions with all the relevant stakeholders to create a plan to resolve their existing challenges. “Some of the things that AFGRI was after weren’t exactly available off the shelf. But in these cases, we went back to the drawing board. It was never a case of us just telling them that it couldn’t be done. Sure, there were situations where we couldn’t fulfil all their needs, but we always met them halfway and suggested viable alternatives.”
The results speak for themselves. According to De Klerk, AFGRI had more than 300 servers in their previous environment, which needed to be migrated to the HUAWEI CLOUD. They were then able to consolidate these, ending up with just 166 servers and no response degradation. In addition, the efficiency of the HUAWEI CLOUD, including high speed SSD storage, enabled AFGRI to reduce their CPU and memory by roughly 25%.
And the amount of time saved has also been significant. “Today, we can provision new servers within 30 minutes, which previously took half a business day, excluding time for change control. And restores, which used to take several hours depending on the size of the server, now take just 15 minutes.”
More than a partner
According to Wilna du Plessis – AFGRI Marketing and Events Manager, AFGRI strives to be a trusted partner to their employees, customers and stakeholders. As such, relationships are a hugely important part of AFGRI’s business ethos. “We want to develop good relationships with everyone we do business with — be it internal or external — and Huawei is no exception. They’ve consistently gone out of their way to understand our business and what we do, which I think is what makes the relationship so successful,” she says.
The future is hybrid
In 2021, enterprises are becoming less worried about sticking with a single cloud vendor and they’re embracing a multi-cloud or hybrid-cloud offering where they can get the best out of each solution, says Jay Zhou – Managing Director, HUAWEI CLOUD, South Africa. The Independent Data Corporation (IDC) confirms this in their 2021 report. According to the IDC, over 90% of enterprises will rely on a hybrid cloud model that incorporates on-premise, dedicated private clouds, multiple public clouds and legacy platforms by 2022.
De Klerk agrees, highlighting the availability and willingness of the Huawei team as a sign of a truly great partnership. “We had some problems in the beginning, as is the case with any project. But we just had to give the Huawei guys a call and they came back with an answer. It doesn’t even matter if it was the right answer, the fact that we could reach out to them so easily and have an honest conversation is what we really wanted.” And he believes that Huawei has also learned a thing or two from AFGRI. “It’s a mutually beneficial partnership; a two-way relationship where we bounce ideas off each other and pool our knowledge to find solutions.”
In fact, before they’d even made a full transition into the HUAWEI CLOUD, the AFGRI IT team and the team from HUAWEI were working closely to deliver exactly what AFGRI needed. “We would ask them questions about how to do things better or how to do things more efficiently and they were constantly available and keen to explore what we were proposing,” Richter says.
“When you have an open and honest partnership like the one we have with AFGRI, there’s no need to sugar-coat anything,” says Perumal. “If they ask us to do something and we can do it, we do it. If we can’t do something, we offer an alternative. If they aren’t happy with the suggested solution, we go back and come up with something else. It’s that simple.”
Today, AFGRI believes that the necessary foundations are in place for them to explore ways to innovate further in the cloud and they already have plans afoot to expand their relationship with Huawei. “There’s this expression in business: ‘open your kimono’. It’s used to describe a situation when a company or team shares their internal workings with a potential partner. For me, this really sums up everything about our relationship with Huawei,” concludes Durand. “It can be hard to bare everything to an outside party, especially in business. But when you really trust someone enough to ‘open your kimono’, the solutions are better because they’re based on an intricate understanding of who we are as a business and what we really want to achieve.”