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Moving applications to both private and public clouds is a must-have option in the utilities industry, due to shrinking margins, under-utilization of application functions and burgeoning user demand for new services, according to Menno Abbink, senior enterprise architect at Essent, a large Netherlands utility company. The initial move of some of Essent's customer-facing and marketing applications, as well as supporting architectures, to the cloud already cut IT costs by 500,000 euros last year.
Abbink is currently leading a large virtual private cloud implementation. "I get to indulge in my long-time fascination with Internet technologies in my work," Abbink said. He now works with software development, Web services, service-oriented architectures (SOA), virtualization, cloud, application programming interface (API) and other enterprise-level technologies.
Abbink has seen cloud computing evolve from niche uses to a utilities industry necessity in the past five years. Today, these businesses are using cloud to gain flexibility, speed application and services deployment, and to lower costs. Web-facing customers demand speed in new feature delivery and performance, he said, but scaling for peak transaction volumes can be expensive and difficult to achieve with in-house data centers. Also, on-premises systems are cost-inefficient, largely because vendors have added so many features to enterprise applications that some aren't being used.
"One of the big challenges is to really use applications and platforms fully, mostly because applications today are so complex," Abbink said. With the cloud model, the customer is only paying for functionality used, not for a large suite that includes unnecessary features.
One of the big challenges is to really use applications and platforms fully.
Menno Abbink, Essent
Moving a large utility's systems to the cloud, either private or public, is a major endeavor. Abbink's team faced a challenging evaluation process when Essent explored cloud migration in 2009. Even after many discussions with cloud providers, each one's technology portfolio and roadmap was fuzzy. "Figuring out which vendors had technologies for an enterprise, not a startup, was hard, too," he said. His team had to vet providers' enterprise levels of security and security, data privacy, risk management, regulatory compliance and more.
One of Abbink's first private cloud projects involved moving to a large SOA-based enterprise service bus (ESB). Other key components chosen for this and future projects were an API server, an integrated development environment IDE and a process layer. External-facing APIs were used as portals for mobile applications and customer self-service. A unified, model-driven design environment, Tibco ActiveMatrix BusinessWorks, supports code-reduced development of new services and application integration. Tibco iProcess was chosen as the run-time execution environment for business processes.
Rather than build or continue to support and maintain the code base of homemade APIs, Abbink's team decided to use an API server. An API server is a platform that provides infrastructure services for API management, delivery and security. Evaluations led them to choose Vordel (now Axway) API server for lower cost and better personal service than what the larger vendors provide.
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Abbink's team has built its own REST-like API Internet functionality. In building APIs, Abbink said, it is important to start design by evaluating consuming applications instead of taking a data model and exposing it fully in the API. "Look at the applications that are consuming the information, and make sure that information is as small as possible," said Abbink. "This eliminates overhead on, for example, XML communication going through the small mobile Internet connection, where performance is really slow."
Essent's current cloud project involves positioning a virtual private cloud on Amazon using Amazon Web Services. "This is virtual extension of our own networking and data center infrastructure," Abbink said. "We have created a whole virtual data center with all the security measures in place." In the project's initial stages, several outside-the-core applications -- mostly in marketing -- and its REST-like APIs are being moved to the cloud.
Abbink will be working on moving more of Essent's services to the cloud. For example, some future projects will utilize Platform as a Service (PaaS) features, such as detail insights, to draw more value from metrics, such as rates of energy consumption. The efficiencies of cloud for analysis of data will bring new ways to service customers, Abbink said. "I can foresee Netherland utilities having smart metering capabilities delivering so much more usable information. Imagine being able to give real-time advice directly to a customer on how to save energy in his house."
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Jan Stafford plans and oversees strategy and operations for TechTarget's Application Development Media Group. She has covered the computer industry for the last 20-plus years, writing about everything from personal computers to operating systems to server virtualization to application development.