ACL transitions to cloud for broader global reach

By John L. Guerra

Editor, GRC & Fraud Software Journal

Kris Hutton, ACL's head of project management

Kris Hutton, ACL’s head of project management

ACL, the Canadian GRC software provider that also provides data analytics and consulting services in risk and audit management, did something few companies its size can accomplish without slowing down: it transitioned 90 percent of its customers to the cloud.

Four years ago, with 14,000 customers in more than 100 countries, including 89 percent of Fortune 500 companies, ACL started a series of moves that would lead to a switch from providing onsite software installation to a subscription-based, cloud delivery model.

ACL: Process impacted everyone’s job duties

GRC & Fraud Software Journal asked Kristian Hutton, ACL’s head of product management, to describe how the company switched to the cloud, software-as-a-service model without significantly interrupting software and consulting services to customers. Though the company described the change as “highly tumultuous process that impacted every person’s job [duties]” in the company’s Vancouver, London and Singapore offices, in the end ACL made the change over successfully.

Read ACL engineer Talking Points

Customers wanted more automation

Before the transition, ACL’s customers had expressed a desire to automate more work processes.

“We wanted to figure out how to grow and better serve our market and customers,” Hutton says. “Our research showed that our market was asking for help to better manage their workflow – the methodology they used to plan, manage, and execute their department’s work.”

The company also wanted to differentiate itself from its competitors, which CEO Laurie Schultz calls “over-priced, over-built, and outdated alternatives.”

The final push for the transition to the cloud, which occurred between August 2014 and July 2015, was preceded by several years of acquisitions and buildout. To add to its functionality and processes, ACL acquired two companies in advance of the full transition to the cloud.

Workpapers.com joins ACL

Purchase number one was a workflow automation platform.

“We had a choice:  build or buy software that solved the problem,” Hutton says. “We chose a ‘buy’ approach to enter this category in 2011, acquiring Workpapers.com—a cloud-based solution provider with a workflow automation platform that complemented our core business.” Now customers could use ACL’s solutions across its departments.

By mid-2013, the company released ACL GRC, its evolved version of the acquired cloud product that was aimed at a much bigger market category; it served as a big driver behind its data-driven GRC offering.

ACL brought 30 years of global analytics product lines and expertise into a fully plug-and- play integrated platform that now offered full workflow management capability on top. This fusion began to greatly influence ACL’s corporate strategy where cloud became a driving influence of not just product features, but all the value add layers like support and resources in a productivity ecosystem.

ACL also wanted direct integration that maps data science to a framework that its customers could measure internally against and aggregated up to their strategic agendas, Hutton says. ACL customers also needed to connect with people and other systems, specifically to be “architected to be part of the Internet of Things,” he says. Only cloud architecture can accomplish this, he said.

Amazon for infrastructure

Moving to the cloud required finding a robust infrastructure that could support delivery of ACL’s GRC software solutions to thousands of customers. The answer: Amazon’s massive cloud architecture.

“ACL provides our GRC cloud-based platform as a SaaS hosted on Amazon’s infrastructure,” Hutton says. “Our workflow platform was built upon Amazon Web Services, which provides IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service). Research by Gartner Group shows that Amazon is 10 times bigger than the next 14 tier-one, cloud-based IaaS competitors combined.”

Another benefit to the new delivery model: The cloud-based platform does not rely on third-party vendors like SAP, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server or other common business systems.

Streaming updates, capabilities

“We wanted to leverage the cloud model used by the most advanced software companies in the world – Google, Adobe, Amazon, and others,” Hutton says. With the cloud model, new updates and capabilities are streamed into the platform in small incremental changes and delivered in a near real-time basis, he says.

The acquisition of Artletic LLC (purchase number two) gave ACL a design studio that helped build its intuitive mobile interface and dashboard for mobile platforms. That allows ACL’s customers to view GRC and analytics data remotely on smart phones and tablets.

“Stakeholders need social user interfaces for real-time collaboration or consumption of insight,” Hutton says. “Leveraging mobility access ensures everyone is looking at the same information at the same time.”

New personalities, new roles

Buying the companies added new employees, talent and personalities to the ACL crew.

During the transformation ACL had about 200 employees and every person’s job was impacted in some way, making the transformation successful but “highly tumultuous,” Hutton says.

The transition “stretched the organization, our channel network and our global customer base,” Hutton says. “The biggest impact of the transition was internal because it touched every aspect of ACL’s business: new sales, renewals, win-backs and partner relations.”

“With the transformation probably came higher than usual stress among employees. However, during that period our headcount grew by at least 33 percent. We now have 250 employees and, by the end of our current fiscal year, we’ll be up to 300.”

‘Fairly smooth’ impact

But overall, the project – which was organized under a team of ACL department heads – benefited from ACL’s existing infrastructure, Hutton says.

“The impact to our market and customer base was fairly smooth,” he says. “We benefitted from a modern business infrastructure with IT and procurement departments that are used to a subscription model and, in some cases, welcomed the transition because it allowed departments to better manage their IT spend and allocate under operating expenses instead of capital expenditures.”

ACL announced the completion of the cloud transition in a news release on Oct. 7, boasting that since the transition it had added “nearly one thousand new customers, including Equinix, Toyota, State Auto Insurance, Novelis, the industrial aluminum company, and chemical giant W.R. Grace.

Hutton says not all its customers transitioned to the cloud model.

“An industry standard for transforming a business model from legacy licensing software to a subscription model (cloud-delivered, SaaS-based) is about four years, which is what it took Concur with a similar transition,” he says. “ACL transformed 99 percent of its global revenue (more than 9,000 organizations and government agencies) within 12 months.”

Work still ongoing

The remaining 1 percent of ACL’s customer organizations did not have the infrastructure to receive cloud services, “such as some government, military or policing agencies,” Hutton says. “They can still integrate data from other tools using comma delimited – csv files.”

The work is still ongoing. Adjustments and improvements continue to be on the agenda. Working out bugs, economizing the code, and keeping the architecture working smoothly is, as any software tech or IT director knows, a 24/7 job.

Schultz and Hutton believe the new ACL is quicker on its feet.

“ACL believes that the world has changed,” Hutton says. “Business has moved to the cloud. It is lean and agile.”

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