Mercury Energy is using the Amazon cloud to offer its customers a pay-as-you-go service to manage their electricity spend.
The product, called GLO-BUG, was built by Fronde using Salesforce.com for customer relationship management, Amazon web services, and Oracle’s ESB (enterprise service bus) and database solution. Billing functions are provided by a specialist utility billing platform deployed into the Amazon EC2 infrastructure cloud.
A display allows customers to see how much power they are using and how much credit they have left. The GLO-BUG changes colour as the balance is getting low, so the customer knows when to top up. The application communicates with metering systems to complete meter readings and do remote connects and disconnects.
“We were looking to create a low-cost service platform and were interested in the opportunities that cloud technologies could bring,” says Phil Gibson, Mercury’s head of technology and innovation. “We forecast significant operational cost savings compared to more traditional deployment options and have seen the benefit of being able to quickly create environments and scale them on demand.”
The solution required various components to be integrated across disparate systems, each provided by a different third party.
Fronde recommended a mix of cloud-based solutions, including Salesforce.com plus Amazon web services hosting the integration layer and the other custom components required in terms of the integration technology. OpenESB, which is Oracle’s (previously Sun’s) open source integration platform, links into an Oracle database back end.
Fronde delivery manager Martin Bridges says it was part of a broader project in terms of transition because Mercury was moving from a proprietary platform.
“The ROI for the project was more complex than just moving to the cloud but it certainly identified lower operational costs using the cloud. Typically, in a traditional hosting model, an entry-level server would cost around $250 a month; we can do the same in the cloud for less than $100.”
He says Fronde undertook a five-week prototype before moving to production. The new solution went live in February.
“Amazon is a very reliable provider and has a range of other services such as seamless load balancing across datacentres. Our main comparison was made with local hosting options.”
For Fronde, it’s the first commercial environment using Amazon, though the company uses Amazon internally for prototyping.
There are some lessons to be learned, Bridges says. “With infrastructure as a service, you can’t forget that you are still responsible for the virtual machines. You need traditional experience to manage the operating systems.
“You also need to consider leveraging more of the platform features the cloud vendor offers.”
Amazon’s billing model was another issue. “They bill monthly in arrears in US dollars, so predicting costs is difficult. With a normal hosting environment, you know the costs up front.
“You also need to tweak operational support.”
He says Fronde may look at using what’s been learned to offer the service to utility providers overseas — particularly in Australia — who don’t complete with Mercury.
Mercury Energy is the retail arm of Mighty River Power.