TAL Apparel moves to cloud in 'lift and shift' fashion

Kiang Kai Yuen, Vice President for Information Technology, TAL ApparelGarment manufacturer TAL Apparel (TAL) had planned to migrate its ERP system to the public cloud. Such a move would make sense on various levels, says the firm's Vice President for Information Technology Kiang Kai Yuen, who believes moving resources away from infrastructure management would allow the firm to focus more on business innovation.

"Cloud is the future. We'd rather invest in the vendor than in hardware infrastructure in itself, as we believe the vendor can use the funds to build more scalable and reliable infrastructure than we can using the same amount of resources by enjoying economies of scale," says Kiang.

Simply shifting directly to the cloud from an on-premise arrangement, however, was deemed too risky due to the size and scale of TAL's business coupled with the complexity of its existing ERP system.

The company, which manufactures some 52 million pieces of garments yearly for premium brands such as Patagonia, Burberry, Brooks Brothers and JCrew, has 26,000 employees working across 12 factories -- 11 in Asia and one in Ethiopia.

Despite less than upbeat sentiment in the fashion retail space, TAL Apparel's business is growing as a result of the e-commerce boom. A new line of business at TAL involves an on-demand manufacturing and delivery service, where orders at a particular brand's e-commerce store get sent in real-time to TAL, which fulfils and delivers the order to the United States. An up and coming customized clothing business also contributed significantly to TAL's revenue.

Orders are place with TAL through a variety of methods including supply chain management platform GT Nexus, real-time API gateways or order files in xml format using sent using a secure FTP. TAL's new cloud ERP system would need to support all customer ordering preferences and cater to various other core functions such as financials, order management, inventory, material requirements planning (MRP) and automated shipping in partnership with logistics providers. Visibility over these core functions was also critical, so production status could be monitored across all factories.

Generic cloud-ERP products may be gaining popularity, but Kiang preferred a product specifically tailored for the fashion space. "An industry-specific ERP system can address certain industry-unique processes better than a generic system like those offered by SAP or Oracle," Kiang says.

Direct shift worries

TAL had been using Infor M3 Fashion for the last 15 to 20 years, with a few major upgrades in between. Three years ago, a discussion began around how TAL could migrate to Infor's CloudSuite for Fashion, an ERP system hosted in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

Loading and bandwidth concerns, coupled with uncertainty around how certain applications would perform in the cloud hindered a direct migration. "We first considered going straight in, but doing so presented several complexities. We have 1,500 users and little visibility into the system's loading patterns and how our integrated applications would work in the cloud," Kiang explains. "Jumping in a single step would result in too high a risk should operations be disrupted, so we decided to take a longer time to ensure continuity."

Phase One -- Lift

A two-step migration approach was agreed on -- phase 1 (the 'lift' stage) would see TAL move its existing system into Infor's data center while phase 2 (the 'shift' stage) would comprise the actual shift to the Amazon Web Services cloud, complete with the switch to CloudSuite for Fashion.

Stage 1, which started two years ago, saw TAL move its ERP system, including core and planning functions into Infor's data center, with the latter in charge of management. This move allowed the R&D team at Infor to gain insight into TAL's system traffic and loading patterns so a suitable cloud-ready system could be designed for the eventual cloud move.

This first stage was scheduled to be completed within six months but dragged on to just under a year as Infor changed its infrastructure partner to Tata Communications. The latter's Hong Kong and Singapore data centers were chosen and functioned as a redundant pair.