Malaysia’s telecommunications leader transforms its data center

Celcom Axiata Berhad (Celcom) was established in 1988. With almost 13 million users and more than 11,000 network sites covering 2G, 3G, and 4G, Celcom is one of the leading telecommunication networks in Malaysia. To transform its business practices, the company chose to go digital with Microsoft Azure.

One of Celcom’s key goals was to build its capabilities internally, making sure it had the required skill sets to manage infrastructure and operations on Azure. The company heeded the advice of Microsoft, leading with the Cloud Adoption Framework for Azure, a proven methodology designed to help customers create and implement the business and technology strategies needed to succeed in the cloud. But providing best practices at every touchpoint and constantly optimizing its network are no easy tasks. “At Celcom, we’re looking at the cloud as a decisive driver of our digital transformation. We can get the benefits from computing capabilities and infrastructure on demand whenever we need it. This is a key paradigm shift, where you can get infrastructure almost instantaneously,” explains Idham Nawawi, CEO of Celcom.

“On the path to digital transformation, we had the opportunity to build up the skill set for the cloud, so we can run and manage infrastructure ourselves. This is important for us as we move forward on the 5G journey in telco. And our organization our people are getting ready for that,” says Nawawi.

Choosing the right support network

Once Celcom decided to move to the cloud, the company took diligent steps to find the right partners. “We reviewed multiple cloud vendors. What we found with Azure is the cloud computing capabilities we were after and also a helpful team at Microsoft, who educated us on how to succeed in the cloud,” recalls Alan David Wilson, Head of IT Strategy & Architecture at Celcom.

The Microsoft team focused on co-creating with Celcom and used the Cloud Adoption Framework, which helped Celcom design and implements its business and technology strategies.

“During the early days of our journey, we required a lot of information. Microsoft extended its operational expertise, explaining to us all the little parts along the way, how to manage the cloud versus how we managed things on-premises.” Once the strategy was defined, the Microsoft team followed with the discovery and assessment process, which was done in less than two weeks. Azure Migrate was used to securely catalog Celcom’s applications, virtual machines, and other IT assets, and determine the best way to host them in the cloud.

The move also involved an important mindset shift regarding the operating model. “It was a transition not just technically, but also business-wise. The traditional telco operates on the on-premises model, with our lines and towers. The thinking was the same when it came to our IT infrastructure. So, we had to reinvent our financial model to get used to paying for what we use,” adds Wilson.

After the cloud was chosen, the next step was to find the right partner to integrate all the pieces. “Similar to how we chose Microsoft as the cloud provider, we also assessed several system integrators who could help us move the process along,” explains Wilson. “We chose Tech Mahindra because of two very good reasons. First, they are computing structure vendors, so they understood our existing network landscape. Second, Tech Mahindra has a Cloud Migration Factory, which gave us confidence in their ability.”

Getting to know the cloud

Before starting the migration, Celcom made sure that the internal organization was ready for change. The cybersecurity team and management needed assurances on compliance and benefits. “One great thing about this project was that our cybersecurity team went from having questions about the cloud to almost championing it,” says Wilson. “Over time, they understood the compliance and benefits, and then they were coming up with ideas of their own to use Azure as an extension of our datacenter in a secure way. It was great to see them picking up the tools and having a lightbulb moment.”

The transition period had challenges too. “We went through a significant learning curve. Originally, we decided to connect to the server through a Virtual Private Network, but after trying with the first few waves of virtual machines, we found that there were too many manual configurations required. The speed aim would not be reached,” recalls Wilson. “So we had to go back and reevaluate the whole design. Tech Mahindra and Microsoft led us to the express route.”

Tech Mahindra’s on-the-ground experience of managing Celcom’s infrastructure landscape was fused with its Cloud Migration Framework from the dedicated Azure CoE lab. “We used the agile methodology to discover, analyze, migrate, and go-live with the selected workloads. With Cloud Migration Factory and the Migration Accelerators to Cloud (MAC) Toolkit, we efficiently delivered the end result with no disruption to the business and with zero rollbacks,” explains Konstantinos Zagalikis, Operations Director of Cloud & Infrastructure Services at Tech Mahindra.

According to Calvin Yau, IT Strategist at Celcom, “Tech Mahindra was our accelerator. They know the bits and bogs, and provided support in connecting and configuring our systems. They jump-started our journey into the cloud.”

Wilson adds, “We went from around one wave of virtual machines (VMs) migration over two months’ period to one wave of 50 VMs every week.” Although the migration plan was challenging and strict, all teams collaborated smoothly and efficiently. “The project involved a complex multi-vendor environment, having 30-plus application vendors, where 800-plus VMs and physical servers were evaluated,” explains Zagalikis. “Changes to the network, firewall configuration, express route design and implementation, alongside with monitor, backup, and security tools were implemented, to ensure the business continuity.”

Reaping a network of benefits

Working with the Azure FastTrack team and Tech Mahindra, Celcom had daily guidance throughout the migration process. Once  migration was complete, the Azure FastTrack team also helped implement a governance minimally viable product to establish the initial governance practices, such as cost management, security baseline, resource consistency, identity baseline, and deployment automation. “We now have a 99.99 percent uptime SLA in place, that gives us a sense of certainty,” explains Yau. “With Azure Sentinel and management procedures we were able to set in place, Celcom’s data is actually our own.”

Not only has Celcom gained potential cost savings from on-premises infrastructure, the company has achieved the agility level needed to be future-ready. “This was the first step of our cloud journey,” says Yau. “At the start, we assured the stakeholders that the investment was worthwhile. The second step was to move forward and deliver the cloudification project: making sure it works, making sure the workload runs. I’m envisioning the third step as more innovation and more speed, more simplification, and efficiency.”

Yau continues, “The first two steps have gone very well. So the challenge now is to maintain confidence, momentum, and keep reaping the benefits. We’re looking into the future and see that we can explore things like Azure IoT Hub, which allows us to connect, monitor, and manage billions of IoT assets. Machine learning is also something we’re looking at, to include anomaly detection capabilities in our applications, and use image processing algorithms to identify, caption, and modernize our media archives.”

“The second major thing is disaster recovery (DR). We are able to set up additional DR to safeguard some of the legacy systems that didn’t really have DR before, so we got business continuity out of it,” adds Wilson. “On the speed side, we are doing a lot more pilots with Microsoft and Azure than we did previously. For example, there’s an analytics pilot. We were looking into sending data from our data lake into Azure because we’ve done all the hard work of setting up the connectivity, setting up the Azure datacenter, and all the architecture. So that enables faster prototyping. We didn’t have such capabilities before.”

Going from zero to hero

All of the hard work and expertise did not go unnoticed. Axiata Group, the parent company of Celcom and a regional champion across 10 countries, recognized the Celcom team’s efforts. “Axiata Group saw us as one of the lead business units in public cloud. We went from not being familiar with the cloud to leaders in the Axiata Group around cloud adoption within just two months from the start date,” notes Nawawi.

“The next step we’re pursuing with Microsoft is setting up the of Excellence, so that we can share the expertise throughout the Axiata Group. This is especially rewarding, because now we can help other companies with their own cloud migration, help build the business cases and the skill sets people need to forge the future. To me, that’s the greatest achievement of this whole project,” concludes Nawawi.

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