For a company that began life as the Australian Gas Light Company back in 1837 and was the second company to list on the Australian Stock Exchange, AGL Energy Limited (AGL), as it is now known, comes with a rich history.
But history only takes you so far in the highly competitive world of energy production and retailing that AGL inhabits, and while the company is proud of its past its focus now is preparing for an even more exciting future.
The Australian energy market is one of the most competitive in the world and as AGL strives to continue as a leader in the industry it is always looking for ways to be agile and innovative with a clear focus on its customers. Part of this involves continuously examining its methods and systems, exploring ways to more efficiently and effectively deliver services to its customers.
That journey is continuing in the technology space with AGL embarking on a digital and agile journey built on the Microsoft Azure cloud – technology terms that would have been completely incomprehensible to AGL employees and customers not so many years ago.
Andy Williams, AGL’s Head of IT Delivery, said the journey has been undertaken with two broad aims at its centre; doing things faster, better, and cheaper, and creating a more engaging and effective customer experience.
“We did some planning and envisioning a year or so ago, asking where did we see ourselves in 2017; and from an IT perspective we saw ourselves being much closer to the use of cloud, the use of agile software development; building a whole new IT function that delivers both the back end and the front end in a more agile approach,” Andy said.
“Our business, just like the rest of the industry, expects us now to do things with a much faster turnaround, with the ability to deploy new products and new services out into an ever more digital customer environment.
A major step on the digital journey for AGL this year has been the release of native iOS and Android apps targeted at residential customers – the first such app for any Australian tier one energy retailer. These have seen strong download growth and engagement and allow customers to track usage, reduce “bill shock” and pay bills easily.
The apps themselves rely on an Azure cloud-based application programming interface (API), giving the apps a platform that scales easily to match customer demand. An API is a set of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications and over the past year AGL has moved its APIs into Azure.
The Azure cloud is also opening up the possibility of the Internet of Things (IoT), which AGL has already started to tap into through a new product called Solar Command. Hosted on the AGL Solar website this gives customers the opportunity to be able to see how their solar panels are performing and provides advice on how to improve performance, for example whether they need cleaning or if a panel is malfunctioning or needs repair.
“I think the whole IoT and machine learning side is very exciting and obviously very closely linked into what we can get out of Azure. Because we have a lot of generation plants we’re quite familiar with the idea of connected physical infrastructure. But with Solar Command, it’s that first foray into collecting non-meter data and adding real value for our customers. I think we’re starting to see that as our real future,” he said.
“What we’re pondering is how digital do we have to go across the entire business, and we’re working out how far we take what is currently a big SAP backend through to a more digital world and how far we roll out agile development techniques with Azure into what we do day by day,” Andy said.
For Shaun Code, AGL’s Head of IT – Energy Markets, the beauty of the move to Azure has been the ability to seamlessly run a number of projects across different technologies.
“Embracing digital drives the need to evolve our core business systems. Over the last 12 months we’ve moved our development and testing systems from a combination of on-premise and privately-hosted virtual machines into the Azure cloud infrastructure service. This move has allowed us to efficiently and nimbly respond to business change and execute projects across a number of diverse technologies. SAP features heavily in our technology landscape alongside .NET and others all running on the Microsoft cloud.
“Our projects require an interconnected set of environments to develop and test on. Often we have multiple development streams running in parallel. With Azure, we’ve now got the flexibility to quickly provision multiple environments. We don’t have to get the hardware, we don’t have to build things. We can template them and deploy new instances rapidly in an automated fashion. In Azure environment provisioning is hours or days instead of weeks or months.
“It also gives us the flexibility to have a greater number of environments to test different scenarios and roll back easily to repeat tests. The other thing is that we’ve driven our costs down significantly. In many scenarios we have about a quarter of the costs running on Azure compared to our previous arrangements – it’s quite significant, explained Shaun.”
Shaun is aiming to get AGL’s disaster recovery and performance test environments into the cloud once AGL has worked through security and capacity requirements.
“When we get these running effectively with robust security then we will have paved the way for an end-to-end Azure cloud environment for our core billing, CRM and Digital systems.”
“That’s a big, big deal for us,” said Shaun.
Just the type of big deal that will see AGL’s future enhance its glorious history.