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Colony Brands' cloud-first strategy starts with data warehouse

To keep pace with the business, Steve Cretney, CIO at Colony Brands Inc. in Monroe, Wis., is turning his back on big iron investments in favor of a cloud-first strategy. He started the transition with the data warehouse, the backbone of the mail-order and electronic retailer's analytics program. By using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon Redshift, a data warehouse service, in place of the company's on-premises SQL Server, Cretney's IT team can make more data available for faster, more granular analytics.

But Cretney's cloud-first strategy doesn't end there. In the months and years to come, he plans to move additional applications -- from Citrix to VMware -- to the cloud so that his team can spend more time engaging with the business and less time worrying about keeping the lights on.

Cretney sat down with SearchCIO's senior news writer, Nicole Laskowski, at the recent Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wis., where they talked about how Amazon S3 and Redshift have played important roles in making Colony Brands' cloud-first strategy a reality.

You're undergoing a major move to the cloud right now. How did you get started?

Steve Cretney: At Colony Brands, we're finding ourselves falling farther and farther behind with the business needs and demands, and we decided that the cloud would help us move ahead and catch up with where the business wants to get to. [The cloud has] helped us get out of the data center business and managing everybody else's technology, and we're using cloud technology to scale up and scale out business systems quicker.

Two of the technologies you've chosen are Amazon S3 and Amazon Redshift. Why those two?

Cretney: We decided to move our data warehouse first. Although we have plans for other infrastructure, the data warehouse was an important function for our business. We do a lot of analytics and reporting internally -- as a direct marketer that's one of our competencies. So we started with the data warehouse.

We did a lift-and-shift: We took our existing data warehouse and we moved it to Amazon, which is a strategy Amazon has proposed to companies -- to pick up what you have and move it to that platform and get it stable. After that, we decided to move the database, the data warehouse, into Redshift so that we could get more scale and performance than we have in our existing data warehouse, which was on SQL Server.

The reason we moved to Redshift is because we see analytics going beyond just a portion of our business to a broad base of our organization -- going away from just the catalog marketers or the underwriters to inventory and operations, and more. And we needed a place to scale and give us that access. The exciting thing is that we can get to real-time analytics, so we can actually -- in real time -- start to decide how we'll treat the customer when she comes into whatever channel she comes to. For example, a customer arrives at our website, we could have pre-conditioned or pre-calculated a promotion for her and be able to in real time decide to give that to her or not. That's an important thing that we couldn't necessarily do on premises.

How does Redshift give you the real-time capability?

Cretney: Redshift by itself is a clustered database. We can scale it out to hundreds of terabytes if we need to, and then we can draw that back down so we're not paying all time. When you combine that with what Amazon has to offer, because it's super high speed, I can set up schedules or "Lambda processes" to run these analytics into it. So it's a combination of features and not just Redshift itself.

What's the next step in your cloud-first strategy?

Cretney: Initially, we're using it for the data warehouse -- so compute, storage, access, APIs and the like. We're going to use it for our whole data warehouse strategy. But Citrix, VMware, applications, storage, backup -- our next step is to move all of that up there in the next couple of years so that we can manage the environment with fewer people, more scale, and with an Opex rather than the Capex model we're into today. This will help us get ahead of the business in terms of doing new stuff rather than just constantly fixing somebody else's infrastructure.

For CIOs interested in following in your footsteps, where should they get started?

Cretney: Just start. Take something small, put it up there, do a proof of concept. It's not hard. Our team was able to do proofs of concepts in weeks with little to no training. There are a lot of videos, Amazon provides resources that are quick and clear as to what you need to do. So what we tell others is just try it. And keep trying it -- don't over-bake it, don't try to do something too big.

Ultimately, though, what we found is that once we got momentum, we brought in a third party. So we brought in another company to help us think through not just the move, but how do you architect, engineer, operate in that environment. We're even using them to help us do operations so we don't have to burden our people -- they're going to manage the service so that we can continue to move things forward.

How has your IT department benefited by moving to the cloud?

Cretney: In the data warehouse team, it's helped them create an environment where we can add data to [the data warehouse] quicker. In six months since the move, we went from a 15 terabyte data warehouse to 35 terabytes now. All this pent-up demand has been taken care of. We're putting new tools up there, like business intelligence tools, so they can get at the data so that we can do reporting. We already have SAS up there for analytics.

Bottom line, what it has helped us do is get in front of the business. We're fulfilling their needs; we're getting to the issues that are on their list, and we're starting to talk about more complex analytics that other parts of the business have never even seen before.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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