Transform 10 min

Executing a reusable, cloud-first infrastructure strategy with Transurban’s CTO


Mithran Naiker is the Chief Technology Officer at Transurban, leading transformational change to deliver industry-leading technology solutions and capabilities aligned to the strategic business objectives of the organisation.

Sitting down with ADAPT’s Senior Research Strategist, Mithran shares Transurban’s reusable infrastructure strategy, how they’re moving workloads to the cloud with COVID-19, and their latest AI and ML projects.

Aparna Sundararajan:

I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a very long time. I know we spoke back in the AWS forum about your cloud strategy. And as a part of Transurban, you’ve given a lot of time, about four years in building an entire transformation strategy to cloud.

My first question to you is, most of the people today are struggling to just build that strategy around infrastructure, and specifically around cloud and how to use it and making a business case. How did you go about building that entire strategy for Transurban?

Mithran Naiker:

Transurban has an interesting journey. Everything about the company, very engineering-based company. When I got there five years ago, we did not have anything in the cloud. And now we’ve got significant workloads in there. The demand for that came from wanting to have the best customer experience. It didn’t come from a tech strategy, didn’t come from someone just going the buzz with cloud let’s try and use it. It came from we had a digital customer experience journey. And we tried to build that, and we tried to build that the most efficient way. And we only had about nine months to do it. It came out of a need for speed, efficiency, and re-usability.

We’ve now got about 40 websites in the cloud. And it’s all but based around a customer journey. And if you go back to what the value is, the value is we can do that a lot quicker on cloud assets rather than trying to build data centres and servers and things like that. When I got there, it used to take us about eight weeks to provision a server, then provision a website on top of that. Right now, we can do that within 40 minutes in the cloud.

The challenge about business cases come from, people start talking about if you go to the cloud, it’s either going to cost more, or it’s going to somehow reduce your costs. I’ve never actually talked to the business about reducing cost. I’ve actually only ever talked about doing things faster, which then gives you time to do more. Because actually, once we moved to the cloud, people found it easy to use and could do more. Our costs skyrocketed.

There is a governance space around how you manage your costs. But the cost skyrocketed because we’re creating more value and I think you’ve got to think about value creation, rather than the cost of implementing something.”

Aparna Sundararajan:

That’s interesting. I do want to go back to a word that you used which I haven’t heard much, re-usability.

Mithran Naiker:

So, one of the selling points I had in my business case was, we’re going to a have a peak in the first year we’ll have a peak because we’re building all these assets, right? We have a, what we call an enterprise cloud platform. But what that allows you to do is all the tooling, the automation that’s built into that platform. You can then keep reusing as you go along. What I said to them, there’ll be a peak for us to invest. But once you get to that peak and you start then reusing these, the older automation that you’ve built, your cost will come down over time.

And we’ve been able to prove that. But I remember when I sold my business case, one of the execs said, “Well, we actually don’t believe you, “but because you came from Seek, “will actually let you go with it.” But that’s why they brought me in they took a bit of a bet. But we’ve actually been, year on year we’ll be able to prove,

Aparna Sundararajan:

Okay. That the re-usability makes cost cheap. Alright, that’s interesting because I was about to ask you the question on a different set of executives and how do you really get to buy-in. Do the personalities matter? Or is it just a hardcore conversation and very objective conversation around the value creation, like you mentioned?

Mithran Naiker:

I think, for me it’s a, coming from Seek which is a digitally native company, all meet digital media. We weren’t always in the cloud but adopting cloud just made more sense for them, right? Why run data centres, when you’re a digital business? When I came to Transurban, because we didn’t have anything in the cloud, it was about taking that first step. And it’s less about personalities, I think because I think execs all understand the value, they all understand the cost, they all understand time. I think it was about proving, like, saying you would do something and then proving that you could do it.

It all came back to like, did I deliver on my promise, and if I did, then they gave me more money to do more.”

I think that’s what, like one of the presentations, yesterday they talked about that, like if you keep you build trust by delivering on what you said you would do.

Aparna Sundararajan:

That’s a really good point because you’ll have to monitor it and measure it consistently?

Mithran Naiker:

And I think cost optimization and managing costs become a lot easier in the cloud, because the cloud providers provide you with a lot of these tools, right? On-prem and in data centres, the costs are hidden because it’s a capex cost, it’s a want of cost.

You can reuse it multiple times. But then you’ve got these massive refresh cycles. In three years after you go and replace all that hardware. People only see it every three years, every five years, based on what your lifecycle programme is. Whereas in the cloud I have to report on it monthly. Creates a lot of visibility as well. How much you’re spending per month and what value that’s creating becomes an interesting conversation.

Aparna Sundararajan:

Okay. And, we at adopting when we conducted a cloud and data centre survey, we found out that right now only about 17% of mission-critical workloads are on cloud. While a lot of that’s already on cloud is payments, ERP systems, CRM systems, mostly SaaS-based and a little bit of PaaS. This was a conversation we had in our roundtable yesterday, do you see if there will be an ideal state of how what the composition would look like for cloud? Or is it going to be as business demands basis?

Mithran Naiker:

Well, I think it depends on the organisation. We don’t have a cloud-only strategy. And that was something I was talking about yesterday. We have a cloud-first strategy. If someone wants to not put a workload in the cloud, they need to come and tell me, explain to me why it can’t be run in the cloud. And then we look at different drivers. But we’ll always have a cloud-first strategy. And I think it comes down to, but we’re running critical workloads in this. We’ve got a revenue generation platform, our tolling platform, which is currently on-prem, but then you wonder we’re building that from scratch is all an AWS.

And it’s like all made out of microservices. But what it allows us to do is use components that are on-prem, use components that are in the cloud and have it all work as an ecosystem. But over time, we will see that shift. And if you look at Transurban’s journey over the last five years we’ve shut down data centres, we’ve migrated a lot of workloads. But we’re not. Also, we’re not always rebuilding those workloads in the cloud. We’re not making it native to the cloud.

We’re also using, but not always re-architecting because some of them we have to just keep for compliance reasons or finance purposes. What we do, is we will alter running VMware on AWS, it allows us to move things that are on-prem in data centres easily to the cloud.

Right, that’s a cheap, cheat of a way to do it, but I think it’s an easy way to reduce your data centre costs. I’ve been able to close down two data centres because I’ve been able to move those workloads. And because they’re not being used, generally, it’s very cheap to run in the cloud.

Aparna Sundararajan:

Right, then the value creation that cloud is more around flexibility and scalability and agility?

Mithran Naiker:

Flexibility, scalability, agility, allowing people to test and try things. Allowing people to experiment, we give people these options, okay, go and try something out and if it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it, right?”

You haven’t spent tens of thousand dollars buying equipment for them to run something on. It’s just build something, try and if it doesn’t work, tear it down.

Aparna Sundararajan:

Okay, you’re saying that also enables innovation in a way that you don’t always have to worry about the cost of that innovation?

Mithran Naiker:

Cost of that innovation. One of the trials we’re doing now is like; we’re really pushing harder. We’ve always had a lot of data, right? We’ve been thinking about gantries. Every car that goes through generates images transactions. We’ve always stored that data, and we’ve been able to get good insights from it. Now what we’re trying to prove is predictive analytics, digital engineering, digital twins. We’re trying to use that data to make, to optimise how we perform our operations.

But for me to do that, if I had to do that on-prem, I would have had to go and buy massive servers to crunch that data. But in the cloud, I can just say, okay, I’ve got all this data, someone goes spin something up and give me some insight. Go try, find me something that’s valuable. Right, at the moment one of the things we’re trying is, in Queensland we’ve got something like 360 jet fans in tunnels. They take the exhaust out of the tunnel, right, to clean the air that’s in there. What we’re trying to look at is, how do we optimise the replacement of those jet fans are very expensive. But at the moment, it’s done on a schedule. X number of years going to replace all of them. Means you have to shut tunnels down; means you have to buy all these new jet fans and then have them installed. We’re now trying to use the data that we’ve got to predict when, when they should be replaced, rather than doing it on a fixed time basis. It’s looking at optimising how we work.

Aparna Sundararajan:

You also said that right now with all the COVID thing happening, that it’s easier for you to move people to work from the home setup?

Mithran Naiker:

Well, absolutely. Yesterday we created something like 70 virtual desktop instances for call centre staff to work from home.

Aparna Sundararajan:

That’s interesting.

Mithran Naiker:

And because we are a VDI platform, we recently just moved from on-prem to the cloud. I can provide the whole company within less than four hours with a virtual desktop to work from home, and they’ll be able to do exactly everything they could do inside the office from home.

Aparna Sundararajan:

So, what are some of the future projects if you would like to talk about?

Mithran Naiker:

Especially with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’re trying to create what’s called digital engineering. We’re trying to digitise asset maintenance and operations. if you think about a tunnel, a tunnel has more than 100,000 pieces of equipment, 18 safety-critical systems. We’re trying to digitise that we can run it in a virtual world and see and simulate something that happens.

Aparna Sundararajan:

Sort of a digital twin?

Mithran Naiker:

Whether, digital twin but of the whole asset. Not just one piece, the whole, the whole asset. And what that’ll allow us to do is do training, simulate incidents whether there’s a fire or a crash and also test out our systems. Like when do they work, when do they not work? How do we optimise? How do we optimise dealing with an incident? And we can do that in a virtual realm rather than having to shut our tunnels down and interrupt people’s lives. We’re trying to get smarter with what we do.

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