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Anatomy Of A Cloud Migration: Inside The Channel Company's IT Transformation

We go behind the scenes to show how The Channel Company built an IT strategy leveraging not only the latest technology, but also the solution provider ecosystem.

On Sept. 17, the former staff of UBM Channel raised glasses of champagne to celebrate the founding of The Channel Company. With more than 150 employees and six office locations across the U.S., UBM Channel had been bought out by management from parent company UBM and was now an independent entity.

But with that independence came new pressures not only from re-launching The Channel Company as a new business, but also the daunting task of separating itself from its former parent's centralized IT infrastructure and fundamentally rethinking the entire IT strategy from top to bottom.

As a high-tech-channel-focused company, CEO Robert Faletra looked at the event as an opportunity to build an IT strategy that leveraged not only the latest technology, but also the solution provider ecosystem that takes that technology and solves business problems.

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The Channel Company needed to separate itself from a vast amount of infrastructure shared with UBM, and it had to do so under the weight of looming deadlines dictated by the buyout agreement, which stipulated the need to get off those shared servers, routers and switches quickly. With less than six months to work, finding a solution provider partner that could scope the work, advise on direction and pull it off was critical.

'A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY'

The unique opportunity to jump to a cloud infrastructure and gain flexibility along with a potential long-term cost savings wasn't lost on The Channel Company.

The economics of not having to outlay a big capital expenditure in favor of funding ongoing IT operations via cash flow was attractive. But flexibility was a big selling point, especially given that the company also would need to relocate four of its six offices within a year.

"We had a unique opportunity," Faletra said. "We were a startup that had an established business. But we didn't want to buy new infrastructure and hire a large IT team to manage it. Our longtime channel heritage made it easy to understand the right solution provider partner could become our trusted adviser and become an outsourcer of IT systems, allowing us to instead focus on our core competency."

Rather than continue using the same IT infrastructure and assets, the move to the cloud also gave The Channel Company an opportunity to start from scratch. Instead of switching to new applications and systems one piece at a time, the migration project gave the company the ability to upgrade to better options across the board.

"One of the real advantages to this was having a clean slate," Faletra said. "We could start over with our IT."

But the first step was finding a solution provider to guide the company into the cloud; the ideal solution provider would have not only high-level expertise and knowledge about cloud computing, but also the scale and capability to move more than 150 employees and their systems to a totally new environment.

The Channel Company selected GreenPages-Logics One, a $125 million solution provider based in Kittery, Maine. The company was 154 on CRN's Solution Provider 500 list last year, an annual ranking of the top solution providers in North America by revenue. GreenPages was founded in 1992 and built a business selling and integrating enterprise infrastructure from leading vendors such as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and more.

In recent years GreenPages has supplemented that traditional business by turning to the cloud. GreenPages placed huge bets on cloud computing, including the launch of a brand new Cloud-Management-as-a-Service (CMaaS) practice in 2012 following its acquisition of Atlanta-based cloud firm LogicsOne (which would play a crucial role in The Channel Company's cloud conversion).

"We had to move fast," Faletra said, "so we wanted to go with someone that we had a relationship with and whom we trusted. I knew that if we had issues, GreenPages would address them. And I knew there were going to be issues because moving our entire infrastructure to the cloud in just a few months, it's not all going to be perfect."

Like Faletra, GreenPages CEO Ron Dupler saw enormous potential for The Channel Company. "It was a great opportunity for The Channel Company because you could start from scratch and go with an optimal IT system," Dupler said.

But there were two hurdles: The Channel Company was moving all of its infrastructure to the cloud (which isn't all that rare, according to Dupler) and it was doing the entire migration in a short amount of time (which is very rare). "We've seen clients move of all of their IT to the cloud, but it's not often we see them do it all at once," Dupler said. "The biggest challenge was the time frame, which was relatively short."

The Channel Company was no longer part of UBM, and because of that UBM was cutting the cord on all network, infrastructure and telecom connections. "The timeline was a challenge because there were a lot of deadlines," said Kevin Hall, managing director of LogicsOne. "And UBM had its own deadlines for when it wanted to get The Channel Company off its infrastructure."

NEXT: 'No Stone Left Unturned'


With the clock ticking, GreenPages and its LogicsOne cloud team huddled with The Channel Company's technical team to start the first phase of the project before The Channel Company itself was even officially launched.

"The cloud conversion offered significant savings," Hall said, "and The Channel Company had the courage to take that leap. It's rare to find a company that's willing to uproot everything and make that kind of IT transition."

It was a risk, too. The Channel Company executives knew if this ambitious project didn't work out, the brand-new venture was in serious trouble.

'NO STONE LEFT UNTURNED'

The Channel Company went live as a new business Sept. 17, but the gears for its cloud conversion already were set in motion. The first phase of this project was a seemingly simple discovery phase, where the project team leaders identified each and every piece of IT equipment under the UBM Channel umbrella.

"The first phase was information-gathering," said John Brown, vice president of product development at The Channel Company, who worked extensively on the cloud migration project. "And that phase took us through the end of the month."

While that may sound simpler than doing actual network conversions and migrations, it was still a massive undertaking and required weeks of analyzing not only a large number of systems -- some of which were shared with other parts of UBM -- but their respective use as well. Every bit of infrastructure was reviewed, from office locations and local telecom services to the dozens of servers, PCs and software licenses. From device to data center, Brown said the team had a simple directive: Leave no stone unturned.

But the initial phase also reviewed more than just the physical IT infrastructure and services UBM Channel used; GreenPages and LogicsOne also looked at every employee's IT access, authorizations and administrative rights across the entire company. The LogicsOne team itself had a dedicated specialist for each IT element -- servers, applications, client devices, telecommunications equipment, etc.

So what did The Channel Company and LogicsOne find during the discovery phase?

"Some of the more interesting discoveries were around the networks," Brown said. "Just seeing all of the different assets we had for network infrastructure was really eye-opening. We were also surprised by the number of older Windows XP machines that were still being used."

On the positive side, The Channel Company was able to keep track of most of its IT assets, Brown said, which included more than 180 workstations, dozens of smartphones and tablets, several servers and what seemed like an endless stream of routers and switches across six office locations.

The discovery phase, however, was more than just tagging and cataloging laptops. It was a deep dive on the technical specifications, usage and capabilities of every IT product. That meant analyzing every system down to its CPU speed and memory and figuring exactly who had access and administrator rights to those systems.

"The piece that was challenging with this phase was time," Brown said. "Sometimes we think we know how deep we need to go with the discovery, but GreenPages and LogicsOne are often pushing us to go further. And we've never done something like this so even though it was frustrating at times, we had to trust them."

Dupler said that level of exacting detail is necessary for a cloud project of this size. "That's what we do," Dupler said. "We try to do as in-depth an interview, both technical and business process, about the requirements and needs are and how best to piece all of the IT together."

After cataloging all of the devices and equipment and analyzing their usage patterns, it was on to the next phase of the cloud migration: figuring out what The Channel Company needed to operate on its own, and what it could get rid of to run as a leaner and more flexible business.

"It's one thing if you're a large enterprise, but as a midtier business there's no way you can spend money on all of that equipment," Brown said. "So we started asking the tough questions. Do we need all of this hardware? All of these file servers and networking gear? Do we really need all this stuff?"

NEXT: 'Nothing Tethered To The Business'


'NOTHING TETHERED TO THE BUSINESS'

Once the discovery phase was completed and the slate was cleaned, The Channel Company had to start making decisions as to what types of systems and software it wanted to fill that slate. And that led to a philosophical question: Should The Channel Company go partial cloud or full cloud?

The Channel Company went into its discussions with GreenPages with the aim of offloading all on-premise infrastructure. "My dream is to have nothing tethered to the business but the printers," Faletra said.

But there was a good deal of vetting and debate as the cloud migration project progressed. What were the advantages of putting the entire data center in the cloud? And what were the risks? "At first we were really considering going with no on-premise servers at all," Brown said. "But we started asking if we should have a couple of Active Directory servers on-site to make sure we can log onto our systems."

The cost savings and flexibility of cloud computing are well known advantages. But was there a concern among The Channel Company executives about not having valuable corporate data stored on-site?

Short answer: No.

"To be honest, I never knew where the data was before we moved to the cloud, so I'm not worried," Faletra said. "I feel better now because the data is with a company that I write a check to every month and if they don't perform, then I stop writing checks."

The Channel Company was wide open to new ideas or alternatives -- and that included moving off Microsoft Windows and applications and moving to Google products. Ultimately, however, GreenPages recommended The Channel Company stay with Windows and move to Office 365. And Office 365 has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the whole project, particularly Microsoft Lync, Faletra said. "I would also say, however, that we are not wed to Microsoft for the long term," he noted. "If Ron's team came in here with a clear, coherent reason why we should jump to a different solution and it made business and financial sense, we would do it. My trust is with my solution provider partner, not Microsoft."

The Channel Company also decided to move off existing back-office and ERP software, which was complex and expensive, to Intacct's cloud-based accounting, billing and human resources applications. "We're seeing huge cost savings every day from the ERP switch alone," said Rob Wiseltier, chief financial officer of The Channel Company.

There were other decisions besides where to host servers or what cloud software to go with. For example, did The Channel Company want to have internal tech support or outsource to a third party? Ultimately, the company decided to outsource it to GreenPages as part of a cloud and managed services contract.

As for client devices, The Channel Company kept the vast majority of notebooks and desktops employees were using before the switchover from UBM; each system had to be wiped of previous applications and UBM software and migrated to Office 365 and new email servers.

But the big question was what to do with the data center. The decision was made to move the company's files and data to cloud servers hosted in Atlanta by LogicsOne partner Cirrity, an Infrastructure-as-a-Service provider, while a couple of Active Directory servers would be converted to virtual machines. So even though all the servers would be off-premise, The Channel Company wasn't completely in the cloud, strictly speaking.

"We're not quite 100 percent cloud because we're using a couple of virtual [Active Directory] servers," Brown said. "Still, it's a huge advantage to not have any infrastructure on-site."

With the migration plan ironed out and the holidays fast approaching, it was time to start actually migrating.

NEXT: Transition Time


TRANSITION TIME

Shortly before the Thanksgiving break, the migration team began its step-by-step process to move each employee from the UBM network to the new TCC (The Channel Company) network. And the first step was migrating to a new Office 365 Outlook email server and email accounts.

"That was an easy one," Brown said. "It went largely as planned."

The migration team focused on one office location at a time, starting with The Channel Company's Irvine, Calif., office as the test case just before Thanksgiving and continuing through the first week of December.

Once the email conversion was completed, the migration team wasted no time; the following week the team began to move each workstation to the new The Channel Company cloud platform and sever connections with the old UBM network. This also included removing all UBM software (security programs, VPNs, etc.) and installing new remote desktop software and antivirus applications.

Again, the GreenPages/LogicsOne team performed the migration one day and one office location at a time (one office was migrated during its Christmas party). This step also meant moving off all shared file servers from the UBM infrastructure and to Microsoft's SkyDrive in Office 365.

But because the former UBM Channel used shared infrastructure with others parts of UBM, this step was much more complicated than a simple email migration. For a full week, employees were restricted to read-only access to shared UBM network folders, which meant that users could see the files but couldn't update or add any new files or folders during the process.

"The Channel Company was deeply integrated with UBM, and that was a huge challenge," said Hall. "The integration was deep, it was down to the file level, so it was like going into a veggie omelet and trying to take out just one type of vegetable."

And as the saying goes, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. As the team migrated each employee workstation to the new TCC data center platform (a process that took about 30 minutes per machine), there were more wrinkles. For example, the previously mentioned Windows XP systems had to be replaced with new systems because XP didn't support Office 365. In addition, there were issues with migrating some Mac systems.

But by mid-December, The Channel Company was completely off UBM's network, and all data folders and file servers were transferred to The Channel Company cloud platform; to speed up the transfer, The Channel Company bought new NAS systems and shipped them to the Atlanta data center. And at that point more than half of employee workstations had been migrated to The Channel Company platform, too.

"Getting off the UBM network and getting our own platform live was a big milestone," Brown said.

By Christmas virtually all workstations were migrated from UBM's software and systems. GreenPages/Logics One also set up new wireless networks for each office and began rolling out its IT support and help desk services for The Channel Company. The Channel Company had a new Infrastructure-as-a-Service platform, cloud-based office and ERP applications, and had shed most of its IT infrastructure costs in the span of just a few short months.

"We extracted the Channel Company from UBM and stood it up like a brand-new startup," Hall said. "It was like getting a body transplant. We took an established company that had been around for 40 years and put it in the body of a 17-year-old."

But there was still more work to be done.

FINAL HURDLES AND THE FUTURE

After a brief break for the holidays, it was back to work. With the TCC data center platform live and all employee workstations migrated, attention turned to website hosting. Throughout January the migration team transferred dozens of websites such as The Channel Company's new home page and XChange Events' website, from UBM servers to new Rackspace servers.

By the time February arrived, every website and URL was off UBM's infrastructure except one: CRN.com.

The flagship site of The Channel Company was not only being migrated to a new hosting destination, but the site was getting an extreme makeover as well, thanks to a new design and content management system. In addition, the CMS for the iPad and Windows 8 tablet apps had to be integrated with the new website CMS and re-launched -- at the same time.

But on Feb. 5, the new CRN.com and its CMS went live with virtually no downtime or interruptions. "We did the Web hosting transition piece by piece," Brown said, "and CRN was the biggest piece."

NEXT: The Last Hurdle


The last hurdle was moving to new telecom services; what appeared to be a simple switch of voice and Internet services turned out to be surprisingly complicated.

"Here's why the telecom component is so complicated," Wiseltier said. "It's tied to your physical location and we had six different office locations with different leases, different telecom service contracts, and different network switches. And each office had its own unique needs."

For example, one office that came to The Channel Company through an acquisition was completely independent from UBM and had a different Internet connection than the other branches. Another office, meanwhile, was in the process of setting up a new business-class network connection. And it didn't make sense for The Channel Company to pay for new fiber lines to be installed in an office location that it may move out of within six months.

Scheduling alone proved to be a major obstacle for telecom carrier assessments; Brown said the migration team had a hard time coordinating efforts with building management of each individual office location.

Thankfully, GreenPages/Logics One had telecom service expertise to help The Channel Company assess its options, which are still being reviewed. "The phone systems conversion is still ongoing," Brown said. "We may end up with a VoIP solution as a temporary stopgap and then go with broadband lines.

Another piece of the IT puzzle that The Channel Company looked at overhauling was its videoconferencing systems. Much like its old ERP software, the company's current solution is costly and complex; the migration team looked at new options but because of the short window for the cloud migration, that part of the project was postponed to a later date.

"Videoconferencing is something I wanted to change, but it wasn't imperative," Faletra said. "It's something that we'll look at in the future, but we couldn't do it in the amount of time we had."

Still, the list of accomplishments and milestones for the project is impressive, Faletra said. Six office locations were removed from a shared network infrastructure and put on a brand-new cloud platform, with more than 150 employees migrated to new platform as well as new cloud-based office and ERP applications.

"The cost savings are tremendous. If you don't have all these infrastructure pieces, then you also don't have to pay for the space for server closets and the climate controls," Faletra said. "I believe the vast majority of companies will be cloud-based in some form or another within the next five years."

Hall agreed, saying cloud migrations show proven benefits and results. "If you're not looking at making this kind of transformation, then I think you're burning money," he said. "Nothing we did here with The Channel Company was particularly bleeding-edge or risky. These are all established solutions. They're proven, they're stable, and they've been around for a while."

And the entire process was performed in what seemed like record time with minimal issues or business interruptions. "I think we and the migration team did a pretty good job in terms of being transparent, communicating what was happening, and keeping disruptions to a minimum," Wiseltier said.

For Dupler, The Channel Company's project was a milestone of its own for the solution provider. "Everyone knew this project was a high-visibility one," Dupler said. "But we take pride in our work and we wanted to make sure we executed and do right by The Channel Company as we do with all of our clients. And we were honored to be a part of this transformation."

The Channel Company established a long-term relationship with GreenPages/Logics One, not only as its cloud host and managed service provider, but as a trusted technology adviser that it will rely on to stay on top of the latest technologies and IT services. In addition to new phone systems and videoconferencing options, The Channel Company plans to explore more cloud solutions to increase flexibility and lower costs. So while the migration to the cloud is complete, the company's cloud evolution will be an ongoing process.

"It's not over," Hall said. "There's much more to come."

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