Have the right gear for the job; that’s Coates Hire’s business model in a nutshell.
It’s a good business model, one that has turned Coates Hire into a household name and Australia’s largest equipment hire businesses with branches in more than 160 locations nationwide and more than 1 million pieces of equipment to rent out.
Coates Hire’s Chief Information Officer Ben Waterhouse, also wanted the right gear for the job. Having the right equipment for the sort of transformation that the business wants to achieve meant a rethink about infrastructure.
While equipment hire hasn’t been a highly digitised business historically, that is changing. There are opportunities to engage digitally with customers and suppliers, to drive internal efficiencies by streamlining processes, to deploy Internet of Things solutions to proactively manage service and maintenance, and roll out mobile applications that help employees do their jobs smarter, faster, and safer.
Coates Hire’s infrastructure needed a refresh and rethink. Waterhouse needed to weigh up whether the legacy model which relied on two separate data centres, five racks of equipment in each, and shared storage was the right platform to take Coates Hire forward at the speed it wanted to get there.
“If you were starting a greenfield organisation, if you were starting a new business start-up style, no one would think twice. Everyone would just automatically go, “Well of course I’m going to turn that on in the cloud. I’m not going to buy hardware. I’m not going to invest capex in equipment and datacentres,” says Waterhouse.
“We worked out that it was significantly beneficial from a cost perspective to actually transition to Azure as a platform, but more importantly, it also helped us drive efficiency to support those other strategic needs, from a digital transformation perspective. It lets us move quicker. Infrastructure becomes less of a bottleneck.”
Waterhouse acknowledges that for a company like Coates Hire which was steeped in legacy – there was a need to take things slowly and be sure it was the right time and the right cloud
“As it turns out that was actually nowhere near as challenging as we thought it was going to be. Azure takes away the shackles of infrastructure. It takes away the shackles of that hardware investment, and spinning hardware up, which is really important if you want to start digital transformation.”
In order to accelerate the move to the cloud, Coates Hire took a lift and shift approach, loading its data centres as they were onto Azure infrastructure as a service. The next step planned is to start leveraging Azure platform as a service, transitioning existing applications and building new capabilities rapidly, knowing that scale and reach are assured.
Waterhouse also stresses that being on Azure allows Coates Hire to make use of all the Azure services such as machine learning and Internet of Things capabilities that will accelerate the pace at which it can innovate.
After a detailed planning and preparation phase, the actual lift and shift of 300 virtual machines and seven core applications across to Azure took just three days. “You literally flick a switch and you’re moving from on-prem to in the cloud. Everything’s all synched up and ready to go,” says Waterhouse.
He did look at the competitive landscape before selecting Microsoft Azure even though Coates Hire is a big Microsoft user with SQL Server, .Net and Xamarin.
“If you go past thinking simply about IaaS and you start to think about platform and what you want to do in the future, and what you need to be able to do in the future, suddenly the Azure environment become a much more compelling conversation.
“Sitecore, for example, is our content management system for all our public websites. We can now definitely run that in Azure PaaS. I couldn’t do that in AWS or Google. I’ve got to manage the underlying environment. I’ve got to either containerise it or deal with that low value-add stuff, which means I’m spending less time on adding business value.”
To ensure that the Coates Hire IT team was ready for the transition to Azure Waterhouse arranged Microsoft training for his people, and worked with a Microsoft Cloud Services Architect to finesse the transition plan.
To the broader business it’s an almost invisible revolution. They are still getting the support that they need, but now they get things faster. If the business needs to scale or open a new office that’s easy because everything can be accessed from the cloud. That’s how it should be, says Waterhouse.
“If I’m doing my job and my team is doing their job, the underlying technology should really be fairly transparent to the business. We should be providing them with services that they need, and part of that could be enabling them to use services within Azure, It’s on us to make that transparent.”
Coates Hire has also rolled out elements of Office 365 to support the business and is about to deploy an IoT data platform across the business which will run from Azure. “That’s significantly easier using Azure services than it would be trying to roll our own environment. It just changes the whole projects and commercial model,” according to Waterhouse.
Speed, scale and lower TCO
Besides accelerating the pace at which Coates Hire can develop and deploy new business solutions across its entire network of outlets, the move to Azure has delivered significant benefit in terms of total cost of ownership (TCO).
According to Waterhouse; “If you sit back and actually look at the whole TCO – so licence costs, storage costs, maintenance costs, colocation costs, power costs, support costs for the hardware environment – and you start adding those all together, the proposition is far more becoming. You then add the soft benefits about around scalability and ease to deploy and speed to deploy, and it’s a very compelling TCO.
“For us the right way to do it was literally just lift and shift everything, and then start to transform once we’re in the cloud. We’ve found savings that we didn’t even bank on. We don’t need hardware load balances anymore. We’ve transitioned our load balance environment to use Azure load balances.
“There’s these hidden savings, and so that’s why I’m reticent to say anything’s ever done. We’re always moving forward. And for us it’s about understanding when we can pick up a service, leverage that, remove some low value-add functionality, and hopefully add more to the bottom line.”
Over five years, factoring in all costs including licences, co-location costs and maintenance the migration to Azure Infrastructure as a Service has proven about 25 per cent cheaper than refreshing the on premises setup says Waterhouse. And, “This doesn’t factor in the added benefits of transforming services to platform and the ongoing reduction in cloud costs.”
Keeping control of costs is critical – but so is ensuring the range of services to support staff, suppliers and customers is up to date and fit for purpose.
Coates Hire already heavily leverages Xamarin to develop mobile applications, which has seen service personnel transition from paper-based processes to digital mobile. For the customer there’s a new level of consistency because every employee follows the same process for checking and servicing as set out by the app.
Coates Hire is also about to launch a series of public APIs and third-party interfaces for key customers and to link to third-party systems. It extends the transformation horizon dramatically.
According to Nevin Swan, Infrastructure Manager, “I think generally we had a very perimeter focused kind of idea of our network and our systems here at Coates Hire for a very long time. We didn’t want anything to come in externally basically.
“With the move to the cloud, we were forced to change our thinking in this area and obviously Azure gives you easy to use tools to make it secure while also much easier to deploy a public facing API to give us mechanisms to present data to customers.
“We absolutely want to be able to deliver valuable data to our customer through APIs that will enable our customers to get better information from us and therefore come back to us because it’s definitely a value proposition which doesn’t exist in the hire market,” he adds.
The initial release sees Coates Hire working with a third-party workforce and plant management technology business, 3D Safety Systems. Coates Hire presents internal data to the 3D Safety platform which then makes that available to customers so there is no longer any need to print off safety documentation when large heavy machinery is hired – the 3D Safety system puts that information in the hands of customers in the field via iOS and Android devices.
According to Waterhouse; “Safety is paramount to our business and all of our customers. We’re trying to simplify that process while still providing the same ultimate outcome for both Coates Hire and our customers.
“Twelve months ago, we wouldn’t have even thought like that. We would have gone, “Okay, we need an IaaS webserver and we’re going to put some stuff on it, and we need some firewalls, and we’re going to do that kind of stuff.” This just opens up absolute fundamental new opportunities for us as a business.”
It’s just one example of how Coates Hire’s IT team is now less about managing infrastructure and more about adding value to the business. As Waterhouse says; “The less time I can spend worrying about underlying technology, and the more time I can spend worrying about how I add more value to the organisation, the better.”