Category Archives: Blog

Fairfax’s IT Pro discusses cloud computing and agile development

“Cloud, agile software changing the nature of business”. Article by Brad Howarth

Brad turns to several industry experts to discuss how new concepts and practices, namely cloud computing and agile software development, are being adopted by large businesses to ensure immediate ROI and more control of their I.T projects.

The full article featured in Fairfax’s I.T Pro is available in both state and national publications including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

 

Agile Bootstrap Program challenges industry approach

 

More information on how we can help your team to bootstrap themselves faster into full Agile.

 

“It’s just not good enough to embed a Scrum Master or send someone off to a three day course and think that this is an effective way to empower your clients to change. What we need to do is to build a partnership model where our teams and even the third party suppliers are integrated to form a collaborative, cross-functional, Agile development team. Then they can learn by doing, under real world conditions.“ Lorraine Pauls Longhurst, Manager Delivery at Pantha Corp said today at he inaugural Scrum Australia Conference in Sydney.


 

To foster this approach Pantha Corp will today launch a new Agile Bootstrap Program to help Australian companies to more quickly trial and analyse the benefits of implementing Scrum based Agile software development practices.

While many of the globes largest software and online businesses like Amazon, Google & eBay operate in an Agile manner, Australia’s top companies have been slower to adopt this approach and are only now coming to appreciate this highly effective and productive way of developing software.


Unlike most practitioners in the Agile software development sector, who often just introduce a Scrum Master or Scrum Coach to a client as the answer to Agile development, Pantha Corp operates on building a collaborative model that is designed to educate and empower the client’s full team to operate capital “A” Agile and to become self reliant. Ultimately, this means that by the end of a development project the clients are able to take over the ongoing development of the software as and where needed.

By using a Bootstrap team-based “learning by doing” model, Pantha Corp can quickly implement the critical technology systems and processes that underpin Agile, such as Continuous Deployment & Automated User Regression Testing. While in parallel introducing the all important Scrum based team management and communications practices that deliver on the productivity, quality and ROI that is at the heart of Agile.


“What Pantha Corp did has helped us to transform how we worked. To set up the Continuous Integration platform, to educate the business about what Agile meant, and the benefits delivered. Plus mentored the team to implement what was needed.” Paul Keen GM of Development and Technology RedBalloon.

As one of the countries leading Agile software development houses Pantha Corp has built a full suite of processes, practices and systems that support their proven Agile Scrum model. Companies entering the Agile Bootstrap Program will co-develop for 3-4 sprints with a Pantha cross-functional Agile team and have access to all of these solutions, plus advice and technical support from a variety of experts, with the team being mentored by dedicated Scrum Masters with over a decade of experience. At the completion of the 6 to 8 week program companies are perfectly placed to confirm the business and commercial benefits available to them through the ongoing adoption of the Agile methodology.


“We want to help companies to quickly see how much more productive and efficient they can be when they introduce an end to end Agile approach to their software development. This is the ideal way to do that, plus the business ends up with some great software. It’s a Win/Win for all involved” said Lorraine Pauls Longhurst.

More information on how we can help your team to bootstrap themselves faster into full Agile.

Building an online retail engine, the Amazon way

Jeff Bezos had it all figured out well over a decade ago. Customers would buy stuff online, if they could find great service, selection and convenience. Since then, Amazon has grown into what will likely be in 2012, a $50 billion annual turnover business.

The recent ClickFrenzy – also sometimes referred to as ClickFail event demonstrated clearly to everyone who hadn’t known already; Australia’s online shoppers are hungry to purchase products from Australian retailers online.

Sadly, it also put the spotlight on the areas in which the Australian e-commerce industry still has a way to go. Particularly, if it is to meet big spikes in demand; and make online shopping in this country something that over delivers and truly delights customers. Maybe it’s time to have a look at what Amazon got right and see what we can do to address some of the industry’s challenges.

Firstly, how has Amazon managed to keep up the pace of innovation throughout its 18 years. And how have they been able to scale their operations, to a size where they can serve more than 20 million customers every day?

The years with Amazon from 1998 to 2002, where we launched three of its eight international sites, hundreds of new product stores and a host of innovative features, provided us with valuable lessons on what made this online commerce giant grow in the way it did.

If you are serious about online retail and digital innovation, I’d like to share a few of the core organisational philosophies and technical fundamentals that made Amazon what it is today.

We want Australian online retailers to not only close the gap with their international competition but leapfrog ahead of them.

Innovation for the sake of your customers
From its very early days in 1994 in a tiny garage in Bellevue, Washington state, Amazon set out to become the world’s most customer-centric company. Jeff rightly believed that by investing in Amazon’s customers, he would increase their loyalty and grow the total dollars they would each spend on his site.

Everyone has a voice in innovation
Amazon has always at heart viewed itself as a technology company that uses meaningful innovation to disrupt markets and gain market share. This strategy takes a shared organisational vision and above all else, an unwavering commitment from the company’s leadership team, to enable everyone within the business to promote their own ideas.

Cross-functional project teams were the norm back in 1998 and innovation would flow top-to-bottom, directly from Jeff Bezos himself, as well as bottom-up. Like it did from a tiny software development team that laid the foundation for the company’s now flourishing AWS cloud services.

Organisational transformation of this nature has to reach deep into the whole business, through sales, customer-service, buying, merchandising, finance, logistics and distribution center staff. Otherwise, the next time someone tries to return his or her unwanted online Christmas present in-store or calls up your hotline, they they don’t get handled in the way they ought to be; and the online experience is destroyed!

Each new hire at Amazon would at some point either pick up the phone in customer service or gift-wrap one of those lovely Christmas presents in a distribution centre. There’s nothing better than having to explain personally to a customer that it is absolutely not a problem to return the product ,for them to fully understand the end-to-end journey of online retailing and customer satisfaction.

Selection and support, close sales
Low prices are only one of a multitude of areas in which Amazon has been and continues to differentiate itself from its competition. It wasn’t just price, but selection and convenience that really set Amazon apart.

From books and music, to clothing and home, health, and personal care products, there are few items that cannot be purchased from Amazon, either directly through its own inventory or via its marketplace. But its not simply about the breadth of its offering that compels shoppers to make that purchase, it is the depth of the content that Amazon offers its customers, which makes the buying decision compelling.

Forget about product and customer reviews. Zoom in on that book cover; watch that trailer, read the first chapter before adding it to your basket or look through that interactive guide of your new smartphone.

What looks easy on the outside however, can be a massively complex undertaking from the inside. Just getting the basics right, such as supplying outstanding product images, is a huge challenge on its own. But it’s worth all the effort because every little bit of additional information you provide your shopper, can be the deciding factor in them making that click to commit and buying the product.

Simply scanning your existing catalogue in low- and high-resolution, is for example, not enough to compete with an Amazon or a Nordstrom on an equal footing.

Online is short for Convenience
Amazon has continuously outpaced others with the myriad of offers and tools that make it painless for customers to shop on its site. They take away many of the fears associated with not being able to physically touch a product or ask a store sales person a quick question. In fact, it has taken all the good things about offline shopping and put them into one concentrated package of goodness, online!

It’s all about convenience and putting the consumer in control. Find the exact status of your order or track it once shipped; see if an item can still be shipped to you, same day for Christmas; splitting shipments so that items that are in inventory will be shipped to you first; Amazon Prime and more recently Amazon Locker also allows packages to be shipped to secure pickup locations across the US.

Offering free shipping to increase conversion rates and sales should be a no-brainer but Australian online commerce sites must go beyond this to compete with their overseas counterparts. Larger bricks and mortar retailers, operating in the online space, could create offers similar to Amazon Prime – whose members are spending more than twice as much on the site than non-Prime customers.

Or why not offer same day shipping to customers living in one of Australia’s capital cities, something your international competitors can’t provide without a local warehouse?

While some of Australia’s grocery stores are piloting these services and Australia Post is to provide a similar secure pick up service, more retailers need to adopt these strategies fast or be left behind, again. 

Set the pace, barely below breakneck speed
People don’t want to hear that you are about to revolutionize their world. They want it now and if you don’t deliver, they will move on and might not come back.

Write the following down as the mantra by which your organisation should live by; launch something new every day or at least every week. Not every month, quarter or year.

Being able to do this is no small feat.

Under promise and over deliver
It is incredibly hard to execute on this simple statement. In the world of online retailing, you need to do two things; firstly, remove any barrier that stops a consumer from purchasing; and secondly, be perfectly clear  about exactly what will happen at each step of the engagement and how they can get help, if they need it at any time. Finally, put a little cherry on top and give them something they aren’t expecting. Delight them and you will have them coming back for more.

Australian retail executives need to step up or move on
To be truly competitive, a number of Australia’s leading bricks and mortar retailers need a clean out at the top. The industry has for the last decade been plagued by leaders who lack vision and are luddites. When it comes to the online and digital transformation sweeping the world they have delayed and dithered, putting the industry back years. With comments like those below, one wonders if they will ever understand what is really at stake.

“Sure, the website crashed. It crashed on the night, but it worked bloody well yesterday (Wednesday) and it gave us some tremendous sales,” CEO of a leading department store chain said, at an Australian Retailers Association breakfast, in Sydney, after the Click frenzy melt down.

“You never get things right first time. We are still in a nursery in online and sometimes in that nursery, the kids cry and sometimes they need to have a quiet sleep.”

It is certainly not what we would imagine Jeff Bezos or the head of any other international online or traditional retailer would say in such a situation. It’s no wonder the share price of many of Australia’s bricks and mortar retailers are plummeting.

Tomorrow, heralds another big opportunity
With Australians, adopting smartphones faster than their US and European counterparts and a whopping 47% of all website visits via a mobile phone, you would think that a mobile optimised shopping experience is a must have in 2013. However, less than half of the top Australian e-commerce sites do!

Instead of just closing the gap with international commerce sites, we should be developing and executing concepts that go beyond the bare minimum, providing additional benefits that come from having the power of a desktop, camera, GPS-device, accelerometer, payment gateway etc, etc, at our disposal.  It’s a “shop in your pocket”.

Why not reach that in-store shopper before he catches a discount online by offering compelling prices with unparalleled service, an app that allows him to find his way around the store or displays current promotions? How about using the mobile channel as a way to actively communicate to your customer about new products and deals that they chose to be notified about? Maybe even while he is passing one of your stores, if you happen to have one, or at the point in time you know that he is visiting your online site?

There is still hope, yet…
One thing is for sure, someone is going to innovate and deliver if you don’t. Whether it’s an Australian start-up such as TheIconic.com.au, with its 3 hours shipping time in Sydney or a ToysRUs, who is now offering free shipping to 60 markets across 6 continents, including Australia. Innovation and change in online retailing will not stop. The consumers want more and it is up to Australian retailers to rise to the challenge if they wish to succeed. Where there’s change, there are always big opportunities.

Cloud hosting with AWS and Software development

The problem

At Panthacorp we noticed early on that our software development and testing teams needed hosted servers. Those servers are used for deploying the applications and testing them. They need to be reliable and available all the time so that testing can happen continuously and without disruption.

However we noticed that:

  • Development and testing environments are most of the time under-utilized
  • Development and testing environments often lack flexibility therefore impacting the productivity
  • Development infrastructure can be costly yet does not seem to be directly bringing revenues and value to the business
  • Production environment’s aim is to remain stable. As opposed to development and testing environment that ought to be highly flexible to respond in virtually no time to the needs of the testing team

Continuous Integration

At Panthacorp, following Agile development best practices, we do not do nightly builds. Instead we have many small builds and testing chunks happening all day long (A.K.A Continuous Integration).

The fact is, that our development and testing servers are unused at night and during the weekend but very busy during the day. All together, we can easily estimate that our servers are being used only 25% of the time!

Team and tests scaling

Another point to consider is that we never have the same needs in terms of infrastructure all along the project. Often we see a slow start when the team is going through the first users stories and only starting to implement the first features. After a couple of weeks we usually start to add complexity and we need more servers for:

  • Integrating with legacy system and application stack (search engine, etc)
  • Run automated non-regression suite. Most of them are driven through the UI and are therefore pretty slow to run. When a test suite takes more than 20 min to run, we then make the decision to start a new environment and running the test suites in parallel.

What is AWS and how it can help optimizing the cost and bringing agility

Days vs nights and weekends

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud-hosting platform. It consists of a powerful API and web services that control a bunch of virtualized servers.

Thanks to the use of virtual machines and APIs, it becomes very easy to shut down a server, decommission an old machine or create a new server. Of course the servers can be preconfigured with the required technology stack beforehand.

But the true magic resides in the fact that AWS does not charge for servers that are not running. Therefore, anybody who has the right access level can stop the servers at night, for when nobody is using them. See in the screenshot below how easy it is:

Scaling the development and test infrastructure

Another important factor to consider is that the needs of the team in terms of infrastructure evolves over time. The more automated test you run, the more servers you need. Integration with legacy system, proofs of concept and attempt at integrating with more application stacks are a few reasons why the development team needs that level of flexibility.

With traditional hosting it would take 2 to 6 weeks to get a new server (requirement gathering, quote, contract, provisioning). With cloud hosting this is reduces to a couple of minutes.

See the image below, which represents the evolution of the infrastructure over time:

What are the immediate benefits

With the servers stopped at night, the cost drops to almost zero. In Fact AWS will only charge a few cents for the storage and will let another client use the CPU and memory.

The following graphic compares the usage and cost of traditional hosting versus cloud hosting for software development and testing:

The red horizontal line indicates the cost of a traditional hosting environment. It’s a constant; the cost is not changing no matter the usage. In green we can clearly see that the cloud hosting cost fluctuates over time.

In fact, with cloud hosting, the cost is directly correlated to the usage.

To summarize the benefits:

  • The Infrastructure cost for development and testing is optimized: low or null when development team is not active – higher cost when a lot of development and testing is happening.
  • No delay in infrastructure provisioning: the dev team gets what it needs in real time.

Is there any other benefit?

The cost factor is an obvious determinant. Besides the cost though, we can identify other great benefits from the cloud:

  • It’s easy to reproduce or create a production infrastructure that the development team can use early in the development stages to spot issues that could only be detected in a “true” production environment which includes security layers, redundancies, CDN, etc..
  • The development team and the business analysts can implement together automated non-regression test suites. (AUAT) The infrastructure scales up when the test suites base grows, keeping execution time low, hence enabling rapid feedback. Increasing number of automated tests and running them all day long becomes cheap and provides high return on investment

How does it work?

You might be wondering how all this work. The truth is that there is no official recipe. However, there are a few tools that can really help you setting up an easy server provisioning/decommissioning process. AWS AMI is probably the most straightforward and efficient tool to use.

AWS AMI

AWS AMI is a system that handles snapshots of servers. They act as images and allow one to save an instant image of a server and reuse the image for starting more servers.

From the AWS Console (or through the API), it’s very easy to use an image and start a replica of the saved server:

 

Jenkins

At Panthacorp we use extensively Jenkins. Jenkins is an application that serves as a release and deployment orchestration tool.  It will detect code source change and trigger deployment (continuous integration) or run any task or script at a given time.

It’s a good idea to use Jenkins and AWS API to control the shutdown and start of the server over nights and weekend.

Example of a Jenkins job that has to stop and start the AUAT-LOAD* environment:

* AUAT stands for Automated User Acceptance Testing

Other tools

Note that the tools above would allow one to control the provisioning and the state of the server (stopped or started). However they are not meant for controlling configuration change and large scale provisioning.

Let’s consider a few other tools

  • Nagios: can help the operation team to check that servers are actually stopped at night. Any monitoring tool would actually do the job.
  • Chef and Puppet: those tools are configuration orchestration tools. They allow large scale configuration change and management
  • CloudFormation: allow creating a whole environment by defining the different services and technology in use. Note that RightScale offers a commercial alternative that is a lot more powerful
  • Foreman: Web-based dashboard for controlling the technology stacks in a cloud environment-using Puppet. Provides an easy to understand monitoring and control panel where servers can be shutdown, provisioned and reconfigured by batch

 

By Vincent Brouillet

Pantha Corp pioneers: the Amazon Cloud in Australia

The Cloud has finally arrived Down Under: With it’s newly-opened Sydney Data Centre, Amazon now provides its local cloud services to Australian-located businesses and enterprises.

PanthaCorp pioneers the Amazon Cloud in Australia

Over 1,100 people attended the recent “Customer Appreciation Day” in Sydney, where the announcement was made. Attendees were treated to a variety of presentations and case studies from some of Australia’s early adopters, including: Commonwealth Bank, City of Melbourne, Hooroo, Halfbrick, REA, and Movember; plus some great insights and advice from the Amazon team on how to drive the best returns from the cloud.

Pantha Corp is proud to have been one of the pioneers who have successfully commissioned a number of agile client projects in the cloud: originally in the US, and now undertaking migrations to the new Sydney facility.


What are the benefits of Agile development in the cloud? Continue reading

Panthacorp: Now Doing Agile Beer Business

Each of our team members has additional special and outstanding talents: David, our Agile Business Analyst, is also a passionate brewer of boutique beers.

Today he surprised us with his newest creation – his PanthaCorp-branded beer ‘Agility’.

Agile Beer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“For me, brewing embodies the essence of ‘Agile,” David explains, Continue reading

Three weeks after Show the Loo version 2 launch

We are very happy with the initial feedback received for version 2 of ShowTheLoo, three weeks after its launch. Which dear reader if you haven’t downloaded it already, can be accessed here on the iTunes App Store. Some updates on its overall placement, ratings and a visualisation of all (!) the loos across Australia we are covering in this entry…

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looking back on 2010 at Pantha Corp

We have not added an entry in a very long time. I guess it goes on to show that we have been a little surprised by the sudden increase in additional work and have been under heavy workload for the whole year.
There’s some really exciting changes and great projects we’ll be launching in 2011 but for now let’s at least list the projects we completed in 2010.

Continue reading