As the largest retailer in Canada with more than 2,400 locations, it’s not surprising that the Loblaw Companies also run one of the largest SAP environments in North America. The retailer, which includes grocery, pharmacy, health and beauty, and apparel businesses, also boasts the largest customer loyalty program in the country with 18 million members.

“If you think about it,” said Hesham Fahmy, VP of technology, “roughly two-thirds of the adult population in Canada are active members in our loyalty program.”

Hesham oversees Loblaw Digital and its entire omnichannel arm, which makes sure the retailer’s customers have the best experience when interacting on any digital platform. In 2013, Loblaw built its ecommerce website on SAP Hybris to make it easier for its customers to buy online and pick up in person. Loblaw recently took its digital experience to the next level on the cloud.

From Convenience to Speed

Hesham and his team were ready to move from being a traditional retailer to becoming a digital-first company and for that, they needed to make the move to the cloud. In addition to enhancing the digital experience, they wanted to free up internal talent to innovate as opposed to working on infrastructure maintenance.

They began by doing a side-by-side comparison of the three biggest cloud providers at that time. “What we were looking for was elasticity,” Hesham said. He wanted to make sure that if traffic peaked, the retailer can easily, and quickly scale up. So, he ran a simulated workflow across all three platforms to set a benchmark, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) always came out on top in terms of all the different metrics.

ASUG News sat down with Hesham at Google Next in San Francisco to talk about moving to the cloud and how it’s helped business.

Sharon: What were you looking to solve by moving to the cloud?

Hesham: Having an online business, we needed to have reliability and the ability to scale. Those were my two biggest objectives. When you’re in an ecommerce business, your traffic goes through ebbs and flows. Some of it is seasonal, for example, Black Friday. You can always predict for something like that and be prepared, but we wanted to go beyond that.

We run a lot of promotional campaigns through our customer loyalty program, which drives a lot of traffic. We can’t have our ecommerce site go down. We needed to be able to absorb all that traffic when needed as well as have the elasticity to scale up or down when needed.

Sharon: How long did it take to complete the move from on-prem to Google Cloud Platform (GCP)?

Hesham: There were two major phases. The first was a lift and shift where we moved everything from on-prem to the cloud with a minimal amount of refactoring. We still had to make it work better on the cloud, but it was predominantly a lift and shift approach. Surprisingly, we got that done in four months.

The second phase—to optimize—has been a series of phases itself and will likely be ongoing. Now that we’re in the cloud, we need to think about optimizing our processes. We need to think about how we make our applications more cloud native and how we can better use the cloud. That’s something we’re still doing but I believe it’s a journey that never ends. We’ve got this road map but we’re constantly making iterations.

Sharon: What tools did you use to make the move to GCP?

Hesham: We worked with Google Cloud Professional Services to help with best practices and planning.

As for the actual move itself, you need to use the tool that’s fit for purpose. So, where it made sense to use Google Kubernetes, then that’s what we did. (Such was the case for our homegrown bits of technology.) We put those into containers because we could make them cloud native and therefore ideal for that purpose. But we also used Google Compute Engine for anything that was SAP Hybris-related.

When we made the move, we didn’t have the option of Anthos, which was just recently announced. That makes it much easier to take any virtual machine and just package it.

Sharon: Did you encounter any obstacles with moving data and securing it? If so, how did you address them?

Hesham: I wouldn’t call them obstacles; I would call them standard concerns. You always want to make sure that your data and your data access are secure. And then you want to make sure you have the right visibility into what’s happening to your data.

We wanted to build a framework and GCP was really good in doing that for us because it has a lot of controls and monitoring built in that we were able to tie into our stack drive. We just had to make sure we did it right. We needed to be aware of how we were setting up permissions and policies from the beginning, and we had all the tools we needed to do it correctly. So, if you’re prepared, there shouldn’t be any obstacles.

Sharon: What did you have to do in terms of change management? Were there challenges with that, or was it straightforward and well received?

Hesham: That was a bit of a journey for us. It involved a change of mentality. Before going to the cloud, almost everything was done manually. But when you’re in the cloud, you can treat everything as code because everything—from your firewall rules to your applications to your infrastructure—is defined logically. It’s defined through code, and when you have code, it naturally has its own change management.

So, it was a bit of a mental shift to now think about changing to operate that way. You’re no longer treating your infrastructure as something that you manually have to do. And so, the challenge was more in how you get people to be more comfortable with that and then to follow that process.

The critical thing is to get everyone involved in this journey from day one. Even though it was the digital team moving to the cloud, we brought in people from all the departments and gave them a seat at the table. They were involved in the conversations and with more skin in the game, they became more comfortable with what we were doing.

Sharon: Since moving to the cloud, what ROI has Loblaw experienced?

Hesham: ROI is hard to measure because at the end of the day the cloud isn’t cheap. Also, the cloud changes how you look at things because you go from predominately CAPEX and something you could depreciate over time to something that’s now more OPEX that hits your profit and loss statements in a year. So, I can’t measure ROI in a traditional way, but the real ROI comes in the performance of the website.

For example, this last Black Friday was the first one in Loblaw Digital’s existence where we had zero downtime. We saw traffic volumes three times larger than what we have ever had before, and we stayed up 100% of the time. Our response times stayed consistent as well. That’s been the experience consistently throughout the year in terms of reliability and uptime. That, to me, says the investment payed off in spades.

Sharon: What’s next for Loblaw and the cloud?

Hesham: The next big thing for us is learning how to leverage all the data that we have and really start to offer some customized experiences for our customers. Now that we’re in GCP and we’ve brought everything together, we can really start, in a very secure manner, offering personalized experiences for our customers. It’s going to be a big data play for us now.

Sharon: What advice would you give to companies still considering making a move to the cloud?

Hesham: Just make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Be very clear about what outcomes you want to get from the cloud. Once you know why you’re taking that journey, then focus on getting that outcome.

Learn more about what you need to know about the cloud. If you’re attending SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference, don’t miss the ASUG session on how to “Develop Your Cloud Strategy with Insights from ASUG Research.”