A COO’s Perspective on the Cloud

On June 29th, 2013 I was walking to the parking lot at the Silver City movie theatre and my phone rang.  I answered the call and by the time I was halfway to my vehicle I was in full sprint.  “Our server room is on fire and the police will not let me enter the building!” Not a phrase the COO wants to hear from the head of your IT department.  I managed to make it to the building in record time by violating a number of municipal bylaws. When I got to the office, smoke was billowing from the front doors and I stood helplessly for 3 hours until I got the all clear from the Fire Marshall and the Police Department that I could enter.  Our   server room was a complete write-off.

In January of 2013 (6 months earlier) we had made the decision to move our Microsoft Office, Outlook and Exchange server into the cloud.  While the business case made perfect sense – I had 3 main concerns:

  1. The fact that my data was going to be somewhere where I could not see or touch made me nervous;
  2. If our servers are down in the head office, I at least had the security of knowing that our IT staff was working on the problem and getting to a resolution;
  3. Is this not going to cost me more money in the long run?

All business resumption plans contemplate a catastrophic event  – that as a worse-case scenario – would mean that a business never recovers.  The complete loss of a server room due to fire can be one of those events.  As a COO you also never want to put your disaster recovery plan into action.  Having a plan is critical but actually putting it into play is a document you want to test.

On Sunday June 30th, (the next day) the operations team came to work.  We were able to contact 95% of our staff via email (we made 3 calls) and advise them of the fire and planned for a company staff meeting for Tuesday at 10:30 am.

We sent out emails to all of our customers to advise them of the fact that we had a fire and that our phone servers had perished in the fire.  All communication would take place via email or through cell phones until our phone systems were replaced (we replaced the phones with Skype For Business).

On Tuesday at noon, all staff were back to work dealing with customer issues and inquiries and they never looked back.  In fact, during this entire time no one thought about email working or not working.  It just worked!

Throughout the course of the month, we were able to communicate with key stakeholders about the progress of the repairs and the eventual return to the office.

What was the business case for the cloud?

  • The main selling feature was uptime. The stats at the time showed that you would be able to access your email anywhere in the world is over 99 % of the time.
  • Maximizing productivity. We have been able to effectively service our customer base across the country and around the world from our head office in Winnipeg.  The sheer number of emails that people receive and need to respond to grows on a daily basis.  Even if we scheduled maintenance to affect the least amount of people, every week someone was being negatively affected or, as luck would have it, a client would be trying to contact us about a critical support incident and we would get the email 6 hours later.
  • Eliminating the cost of maintenance. We always had regular maintenance to make sure that we were running the latest anti-virus, anti-spam and other updates but because we have almost 100 staff across the country, the maintenance needed to be timed to affect the least amount of people.  That meant overtime for the IT staff.
  • Eliminate the need to buy servers. At about $20,000 for a server plus implementation time in a fast growing company like Encore, if I can find $20,000 to spend on marketing, recruitment or other capital assets, that is a bonus.

What was the impact to the business in July 2013?  We are a services-based business, which means that our main revenue comes from our monthly billings to our customers.  In July we had our best July EVER in the course of our 25 of years of existence.  Although it was summer, and we had a fire in our server room right before the start of the month, July 2013 was one of our best months of the entire year.  This would not have been remotely possible if our email servers had been caught in the fire.

We were able to function as a business through email communications that originated in the cloud at a time when the fire could have been the end of Encore.

Oh, and what caused the fire?  We cool our server room with room air-conditioners.  One of them shorted out, sparked, and caught on fire.  In a small room it spread quickly and the heat from the fire melted most things in the room.  You would be surprised at how much plastic can be in one room.

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