dumps Oracle and Microsoft, gulps AWS Kool-Aid

Dumping all our IT eggs in one basket? You betcha, says CTO

Mark Holt Trainline
Mark Holt CTO of The Trainline

Interview Mark Holt, CTO at, is an unashamed AWS believer. He is dumping all of its legacy tech in a complete migration to the cloud, with the US cloud firm now being its sole supplier.

"Now we have an Oracle Exadata Database Machine that we are about to throw in the river,” he says.

That move has had tangible results on the bottom line, saving the company £1.2m in capital expenditure while operational expenditure has stayed the same, Holt tells us.

Is it wise to put all the eggs in one cloudy basket when AWS could, at some point in the future, decide on a unilateral price hike? The CTO takes a pragmatic view: “That is a risk we have decided to take as a company.”

Holt reckons the advantages far outweigh the risks, with a faster product time-to-market of 5,000 per cent being one that he highlights.

“The migration has gone really well. Now we are 100 per cent cloud. All our websites, everything the customer touches. There is no internal infrastructure. We can build out our own platform-as-a-service infrastructure so we can deploy the software and, once deployed, switch from old to new automatically. We can do one version and if that doesn’t work, then we just roll it back. Part of going into the cloud has also been why are are now in 100 per cent in continuous delivery.”

But Trainline, which processes three tickets per second at peak times and processes £1.6bn worth of ticket transactions per year, wasn’t always so partial to the fluffy stuff. Prior to embarking on its migration nearly two years ago, it had a huge amongst of legacy IT and a big outsourcing contract with Capgemini.

These days it is mainly an in-house operation with 170 IT staff – although Holt describes it as a mostly technology company: “We will sometimes use vendors to supplement teams. During the Amazon migration, for example, because we had so much work involved we used a couple of external companies.”

"We are not like one of these firms that has a £30m deal with an outsourcer – although we used to be about five years ago. Oracle was also a huge vendor and supplier. We had a lot of big ugly IT contracts. That is great for certain type of business, but we need to innovate constantly. And we need developers who understand the business. A lot of our innovation comes from the bottom up... so people who are closer to the problem."

He said the company has tried to ditch its legacy: "AWS has been big part of that. For example, the Oracle Exadata Database was a phenomenal piece of it, but it comes with an eye-watering price tag. We took 95 per cent of the IOPS off the database to run on a regular Amazon EC2 server. You have to very actively pursue those kinds of opportunities, but it has really reduced costs.”

Holt has practical reasons for going with one cloud vendor. "The reason, he says, "is because you can lose a lot of benefits engineering your way into pretending all clouds are the same".

“Performance is massive for us – so any latency even just a fraction of a second can cost millions in lost revenue. Every time you hop between different vendors' data centres it will start costing real money."

From an innovation perspective, he reckons AWS also makes more sense.

“We are a Microsoft shop and were on .NET so Microsoft could have made sense. However, it wasn’t really where we want to be going. .NET is an awesome development environment, but Windows is a terrible platform to be deploying on."

He believes Gartner’s somewhat schizophrenic “bimodal” IT concept of separating out the clunky tech from the innovation is “a load of nonsense”.

“Currently 20 per cent of the IT budget is spent keeping the lights on. But we are working really hard to make sure we are spending on innovation and our spending correlates with our strategy. So for example, if we have a growth projection from the finance team that over the next five years 30 per cent of our revenue should come from apps, we might take 20 per cent of our maintenance costs and put the rest in mobile. That gives us a shape to our tech business which accurately reflects the growth potential.”

Whizzy customer services give the biz an edge over buying directly from the train operators, he says.

“Our Smart Ticket app is a rail ticket as if Harry Potter had designed. It gives customers a regular orange rail ticket that is constantly updating. So if you've booked an open return it will show you the next train you can get as well as if there are any delays.”

Trainline also provides bar-code tickets available on 36 per cent of routes – cutting out the need for queuing at ticket machines.

So does the brave new world of developer-led apps mean it's all over for big IT?

"We try not to do very many of those big IT infrastructure projects. We are in the process of moving telephones into the cloud. That is looking pretty good at the moment. Beyond that, yes. We like to do things iteratively." ®

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