The ongoing shift to the cloud is affecting nearly all types of IT environments—including Microsoft platforms and applications that companies have been relying on for years to support key business processes.
Because these applications are generally so well entrenched within organisations and among end users, migrating to the cloud can be a cultural and technical challenge. It can also take a relatively long time to complete, particularly for large enterprises with far-flung operations.
Nevertheless, moving Microsoft environments to the cloud could be well worth the effort if companies create a valid business plan.
Here’s a look at how three companies—J.B. Hunt, H&R Block, and A.P. Moller – Maersk—have made or are making the shift from on-premises Microsoft applications and systems to Microsoft’s Azure cloud services.
Moving old and new applications off premises
Trucking and transportation company J.B. Hunt Transport Services is in the midst of a migration to Azure for applications that fall into three categories: mainframe applications, existing distributed applications, and new applications.
“We are in the process of migrating our core operating system to the cloud, which is provided by a mainframe today hosted on premises,” says Gary Dowdy, vice president of engineering and technology at J.B. Hunt.
The old operating system was custom-written and the new cloud version is as well, Dowdy says. The migration to Azure, which began in earnest about two and a half years ago, is about 60 per cent complete.
The company also has a number of distributed applications running on premises that “front-end” the mainframe or provide additional capabilities for the company. These applications are being re-written and ported to the Azure cloud, Dowdy says.
“They are applications that allow us to manage orders and loads from a logistics perspective,” Dowdy says. For example, they make sure that all orders are covered, tenders are executed, and carriers pick up the right loads, etc.
J.B. Hunt selected Microsoft as a strategic partner about three years ago and the relationship has grown as Microsoft continues to add more capabilities to Azure.
These include Azure Functions, a serverless computing service that enables companies to run code on-demand without having to explicitly provision or manage infrastructure; Event Grid, a fully managed event service that enables organisations to manage events across different Azure services and applications and Azure Stream Analytics, a real-time analytics service designed for streaming data workloads.
This is in addition to Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), which manages a customer’s hosted Kubernetes environment, making it easy to deploy and manage containerised applications without container orchestration expertise.
J.B. Hunt is using many of these Azure services, as well as Azure DevOps Server, which provides version control, reporting, requirements management, project management, and testing and release management capabilities. It covers the entire application lifecycle, according to Microsoft, and enables continuous integration and continuous deliver (CI/CD).
The company also relies on Azure services for storage, application programming interface (API) management, customer resource management (CRM), and data lakes.
As a result of moving many of its processes to the cloud, J.B. Hunt has seen results such as faster time to market for new offerings, and the ability to scale more quickly.
“The new capabilities enable our company to build and expand our products in cloud-native format,” Dowdy says. “For us, the value proposition is about growth. In just over two years, we launched a new e-commerce offering that is generating at a $1.3 billion run rate. We did not have to worry as much about infrastructure to achieve this success.”
Although much of its IT infrastructure relies on Microsoft technology, J.B. Hunt management does not want to be in a position of being locked into one provider, Dowdy says.
“The Kubernetes direction for us and that of Azure provides a mechanism to give the business options if need be,” Dowdy says. “We do not foresee the need to use this option,” but at least it’s there if needed.
Digital transformation includes migration to the cloud
Accounting firm H&R Block began its journey to the cloud in 2018, when it first migrated data warehousing workloads from legacy massively parallel processing (MPP) platforms to Microsoft SQL Server 2017 on premises.
That was quickly followed by a move to the Microsoft Azure public cloud, starting with client-servicing systems including a do-it-yourself online tax-filing application and an appointment management application used by 10,000 offices.
“Migration to Microsoft Azure is an integral part of our broader transformation to digitally enable all facets of H&R Block,” says Aditya Thadani, enterprise architecture and information management lead at the firm. It’s aimed at offering seamless client experiences, whether online or in person, using a do-it-yourself service or getting expert preparation from a tax professional, he says.
“To deliver consistent, omni-channel experiences across this broad spectrum of clients, we need to simplify data collection, access, and analysis,” Thadani says.
“We also need an extremely elastic and resilient technology infrastructure to meet the unique seasonal demands of our business. Both these drivers together make public cloud a great fit for our evolving business needs.”
The firm has migrated all of its Operational Data Stores (ODS) and enterprise data warehouse workloads to a combination of Microsoft platforms on-premises and in Azure, with initiatives underway to move all of these platforms to Azure.
The do-it-yourself tax-preparation platform and some of H&R Block’s operational systems for its assisted and virtual tax-preparation services are now completely in the cloud. “We started this migration by first relying mostly on infrastructure-as-a-service and then transitioning to increasingly leverage cloud-native platforms and services,” such as Azure SQL, Thadani says.
With the cloud services, “we no longer have data platform silos to serve our clients in-person versus online,” Thadani says.
“This has been the single biggest [impact] for us to enable seamless omni-channel experiences for our clients. Additionally, our data analysts can quickly spin up new solutions in Azure to bring together data from multiple sources and leverage it to deliver smarter, more powerful solutions to serve our clients.”
The migration to Azure “has served as a significant accelerant in our digital transformation journey,” Thadani says. “We have now been through one entire tax season servicing over 20 million clients on systems deployed in Azure.
"From a technology operations perspective, we have successfully leveraged the elasticity of public cloud to meet tax-season peaks in demand, and our users are happy with the performance and reliability of these systems."
From a business operations perspective, the firm was able to deliver a richer, omni-channel experience to clients and meet their evolving expectations. “Also, Azure has made it easier for us to continue our work using AI, machine learning, and other data-driven strategies to serve our customers better,” Thadani says.
The data migration effort presented some technical challenges, due to the table sizes and data type compatibility between legacy warehouse platforms and SQL Server, Thadani says. But the firm’s engineers were able to work through those issues with support from Microsoft.
Powering an Internet of Things initiative
In August 2019, transport, logistics, and energy company A.P. Moller – Maersk moved its remote container management (RCM) platform—which the company uses to manage the containers it ships for customers—from on premises to the cloud as part of its RCM 2.0 project. The effort aims to reduce the running costs of RCM and significantly cut hardware costs in the future.
Among the other reasons for launching the RCM 2.0 project were to improve system performance and reduce outages, and create enhanced security around the RCM process, says Siddharta Kulkarni, senior IT project manager at the company.
“RCM is essentially an IoT [Internet of Things] solution,” Kulkarni says. “As part of the migration we built an enterprise IoT platform using Azure services such as IoT Hub, Event Hub, and Device Provisioning Service.”
A key driver for moving to Azure was to leverage serverless computing, which helps Maersk manage additional capacity for backlog situations and peak load scenarios.
Other drivers included reduced maintenance due to the use of platform-as-a-service components; access to a scalable IoT platform enabling more use cases; improved availability through migration of key components over Azure PaaS; improved security through the decoupling of core enterprise components and Internet-facing IoT components; and improved monitoring capability.
The Azure IoT Hub and its Device Provisioning Service have been key components of Maersk’s IoT platform, helping the company manage connected devices securely.
Maersk uses another offering, Azure Cosmos DB—Microsoft’s distributed database service—to manage its device metadata, telemetry, and management commands. “Cosmos DB, being schema agnostic, has helped us manage profiles of heterogeneous devices,” Kulkarni says.
And the company use Azure Functions to help build its event-driven computing applications. “The functions have provided us greater capabilities to process high volumes of telemetry events,” Kulkarni says.
With the shift to the cloud, Maersk has limited overhead for its IoT effort because most of the key components have been migrated to Azure platform-as-a-service. IoT has enabled the company to collect a huge amount of data from more than 380,000 containers and to use the information to derive insights, Kulkarni says.
“Moving to the cloud has delivered the underlying infrastructure we need to take RCM to the future,” Kulkarni says. “We will be able to run on-the-fly analytics, and with new devices some of these analytics will be pushed to edge computing.” This opens doors for exploring new business offers for customers, he says.