A way to separate the providers from the players, solutions focus enables vendor organizations to move up the value chain to client conversations around solving business issues and the added services which that entails. A solutions approach can also serve to differentiate the vendor, marking the organization as a one-stop go-to for expertise and capability in a specific vertical industry or technology area. In cloud services — and IaaS markets in particular — this differentiation has become more than Holy Grail; in an increasingly crowded IaaS space, it represents an intelligent competitive strategy for circumventing the influence of a dominant, established provider. But how does an IaaS services supplier effect this transformation? CenturyLink Technology Solutions’ shift from infrastructure provider to solutions player offers a fascinating glimpse into the conversion from commodity to commerce — and a view into the service elements needed to create an effective solution bundle for e-commerce customers.
The solutions journey for CenturyLink Technology Solutions (CTS), formerly Savvis, began in earnest a year ago, but as Kevin Conway, director, global solutions management, e-commerce, digital marketing and content management at CenturyLink, pointed out, the company has a twelve year history of delivering an array of infrastructure services, including compute, storage backup, facilities, networking, and management of databases and operating systems for Fortune 500 companies across a range of verticals. According to Conway, based on their positive experience of CenturyLink infrastructure service management and operation, customers "pushed us to move up the stack." For several years, the company did this, developing custom solutions that extended to code testing and production deployment on an ad hoc basis as required by its larger customers. While CTS has "been up the stack for some time," Conway explained that more recently, the company has begun to transform these custom projects into standard solution offerings, which begin with strategy and consulting to map customer needs to various technology components, such as infrastructure, software licensing, application monitoring, management and support, app development and migration, as well as app integration into customer systems. This last is an especially involved task — in a typical retail engagement, for example, CenturyLink performs approximately 70 integrations at the application layer — and one that reflects the company’s changing market focus: Conway added, "When we go into a customer engagement now, we don’t talk about cloud and infrastructure. We’re not just talking to the CIOs — we’re in with line of business, we’re in the marketing organization. Anyone can provide infrastructure. But the question is, is that going to support what the business is trying to do."
From a marketing point of view, CenturyLink’s first step in the creation of standardized solutions was to pinpoint prominent ‘workloads’ — specifically Big Data and the B2C digital experience (commerce and marketing capabilities), and from these business cases identify the consulting, application and integration needs that customers might have in both the consumer facing and backend sides of the business. Specific components in the company’s ecommerce platform include technology that enables clients to deliver content to their customers, to gather data and make decisions based on it, to build in an order and then convert that order — capabilities that are delivered through solutions such as WebSphere Commerce, Oracle APG and the Magento and Hybris ecommerce platforms, with extensions for integration into applications like payment processing or order management systems.
According to Conway, this approach involved looking at technology delivery from an "ecosystem" perspective, building the core ecommerce platform, and layering in ancillary applications to form an "end-to-end" solution. Depending on the circumstances, pieces of this solution may be delivered through leverage of strategic partnerships at the application layer or through the outsourcing of a particular application. Conway pointed to payments processing as a good example of where it makes more sense for CenturyLink to integrate rather than build a standard offering as etailers will typically have a processor in place already.
To support its new solutions focus, CenturyLink earmarked budgets for investment in the creation of technology environments, but also for investment in people across the organization: a solution lead, a solutions architect, product managers and product engineers, service delivery (deployment) experts, a dedicated solutions marketing person, project managers, in addition to help desk and operational support resources are all part of the solutions team. On the operational and product side, Conway noted that the company was able to draw on experience with up the stack applications that existing staff had developed in custom projects and augmented this with subject matter experts in different solution areas. On the sales and marketing side, a first task was to "ramp up" the sales force, many of whom had worked with ecommerce customers in the past, building the required skills and abilities through training on workloads and the gradual infill of open positions with reps that were well versed in solution sales and capable of conversing with line of business, commerce managers who have increasing influence over IT budgets.
Going forward, CenturyLink Technology Solutions is looking to build on strengths developed in the delivery of Savvis legacy services to the financial industry to transition ‘financial’ clients who are increasingly focused on the consumer side of their businesses to its ‘commerce’ platform. Within this segment, Conway explained, "the one key word that always pops up is security. Security of financial data is absolutely critical — if you look at the Lego blocks that we put together, security is always the foundation that we build on top of and we have an excellent reputation in the industry for those capabilities."
Though customers — even in an outsource arrangement — remain responsible for meeting governance and regulatory compliance requirements, CTS supports a customer’s achievement of certifications such as PCI by meeting the security requirements imposed by PCI DSS on a provider organization, and through reporting on issues like data centre facilities compliance to facilitate the customer’s audit process. In aid of this process, CTS has put together a PCI bundle that includes products such as Web Application Firewall and network intrusion protection that it offers to clients needing to comply with PCI. In some cases, credit card information may be held by the client or third-party payment processor — CTS would receive back only an approval token for storage in internal systems and hence be exempt from this portion of the PCI audit. For this type of customer, the company engages in a review of PCI processes, outlining the responsibility of each party for specific compliance components. "We have been helping customer pass the PCI audits with QSAs since PCI came about. We know how to help customers through it, based on the services that we are providing," Conway added. And for customers who might have some regulatory or compliance reasons to keep their data in a particular location, CenturyLink maintains a global data centre footprint with a deployment model that allows access to full service capability whatever the location, and that enables customers to specify data residence — a requirement in jurisdictions such as Canada that may have different security, privacy or governance concerns.
Though not specific to e-commerce, cloud services are another value add that form part of the company’s solutions approach to commerce clients. An enabler of ‘customer experience’, cloud can help deliver the web performance needed for reliable content delivery, support mass email campaigns that marketers engage in, and offer bursting to elastic capacity for the auto-scale of needs by businesses engaged in seasonal, retail activities, while offering cost structures that address variable, on-demand requirements to align cost with revenue. CenturyLink is currently working on the alignment of software licenses with the scale up and down capabilities of the cloud — a particular benefit to commerce customers who traditionally have had to buy enough perpetual software licenses to address peak periods. The company is now in discussion with a number of ISVs to establish a rental — or service provider licensing model arrangement that can be incorporated into client solutions to add incremental value for customers.
Interestingly, despite cloud benefits, CenturyLink has found that the cloud discussion resonates most clearly with the IT side of the business. According to Conway, line of business and marketing organizations are less focused on cloud and more on achieving business outcomes: "As part of the solution, cloud enables the CIO and IT organization to scale based on the demand and keep the cost structures in line with revenue. For the marketer or other ecommerce executive, cloud enables them to not worry about scalability and focus all of their time and efforts on making sure the right content is delivered across the right devices and channel. In both scenarios, cloud takes a burden off each organization and frees up resources and budget to focus on things that align and drive revenue into the business." In other words, cloud acts one component in a broader, hybrid solution that can drive ecommerce goals.