The cloud is exciting, but it's very easy to run up costs as people spin up more and more services. By using New Relic infrastructure, we've actually been able to lower infrastructure costs by 25% by identifying and turning off what we don't need.

George Murage
group head of technology operations at Cellulant

“With two-thirds of Africans unable to access a bank account, we believe that building a connected payments infrastructure is the foundation of solving real challenges and accelerating Africa’s growth and development.” This is how Ken Njoroge, co-founder and co-CEO of Cellulant, describes the vision of the Pan-African-based financial technology company that is building a payments gateway and an agriculture marketplace. However, Cellulant did not start life as a financial technology company.

Established in 2002 by Ken Njoroge and co-founder Bolaji Akinboro to provide ring-back tones for mobile subscribers, Cellulant soon found itself designing a digital wallet when it faced difficulties receiving payments from mobile providers in the extremely fractured African financial marketplace. It didn’t take long for the company’s founders to realize that a payment system like the one they had designed could be enormously beneficial throughout Africa, where two-thirds of the population doesn’t have bank accounts, and 98% of transactions are carried out in cash. From there, it was a sprint to be first to market with a digital payment platform and marketplace ecosystem “for Africa, by Africans, in Africa.” Having won that race, Cellulant’s next goal was to make its platform ubiquitous across the continent.

Today, with operations in 18 countries, coverage extending to 50% of Africa’s banks and to 17 million unbanked African farmers, and a payment platform that serves 1 in 10 Africans, Cellulant is well on its way to meeting that goal. In 2017, however, the company’s co-CEO anticipated a coming crisis for a platform that was already growing by leaps and bounds. His worry: a contract currently being negotiated would likely result in 10 times more traffic for the platform—and that the platform would not be able to accommodate the sudden spike in users.

Rapid growth and spiking traffic

As it turns out, the co-CEO’s worries were well-founded. Although Cellulant had already begun moving from a monolithic system to an event-driven, microservices-based architecture, the company’s payment platform, Tingg, experienced its first catastrophic failure in April 2018 when a discounted offer designed to drive people to the platform resulted in a wave of traffic that crippled the system. “We had massive failures one Friday evening,” explains George Murage, group head of technology operations at Cellulant. “And that really served as a wakeup call: we knew it was time to change our approach to technology.”

Already considering migrating its platform to the cloud for the cost savings and flexibility it could afford, Cellulant got very serious very fast about the prospect. But, says Murage, “we knew the transition would be a journey, not an event, and that we would need to essentially ‘re-platform’ and rewrite significant portions of our code to derive full value from a cloud-based environment.”

That’s when Cellulant began looking at New Relic.

Moving to the cloud 

Having decided to move its environment to Amazon Web Services (AWS), Cellulant began searching in earnest for a monitoring solution to facilitate cloud migration and to ensure seamless application and infrastructure performance going forward. The company’s first encounter with New Relic came at an AWS Summit. Explains Murage, “As a startup, we tended to rely on open source software during our inception and were wary of big technology, but with rapid growth (which resulted from having a viable and scalable payments solution), we decided to do a proof of concept with New Relic because we were very clear on the features we wanted to see when we migrated to the cloud and the challenges we were facing.”

New Relic did not disappoint. From the moment Murage and team began testing New Relic, they could see that it was going to provide the end-to-end visibility the company required. “When we had that incident in April 2018, we couldn't tell whether it was an application or a database issue, so we had multiple teams running around in circles,” says Murage. “One of the first things we noticed about New Relic was the consolidated view it provided. For the first time ever we could see what was happening across our environment, and identify the code that was generating so many errors. This was unprecedented.”

Making cloud migration easy

With the deal sealed, a New Relic engineer came on board to help Cellulant set up the platform to support observability across both the legacy stack and the new stack it was building—key to ensuring a successful migration to the cloud.

“Where New Relic really helped was in allowing us to baseline what was running on premise so that we could get a clear view of the improvements we wanted to experience in the cloud,” says Murage. “In the payments market, a problem can exist for a couple of hours and then disappear. Prior to New Relic, all we were able to determine in such cases was that people came into the ecosystem, had a poor experience, and then left. Now, we can pinpoint the underlying problem and figure out how to avoid it in the cloud.”

In addition to the usage view provided by New Relic. The platform also makes it much easier for Cellulant to control infrastructure costs. Explains Murage, “The cloud is exciting, but it's very easy to run up costs as people spin up more and more services. By using New Relic infrastructure, we've actually been able to lower infrastructure costs by 25% by identifying and turning off what we don't need.”

Facilitating DevOps

While Murage originally envisioned the New Relic platform as a tool for the operations team, the company’s developers have embraced it as well, easing their transition to a DevOps style of continuous application delivery.

“While in the past our conversations with developers could be quite acrimonious, that changed when we began to use the dashboards in New Relic,” says Murage. “Now the developers can see, for example, if a feature works but is degrading the user experience, and then have the satisfaction of writing a piece of code and seeing it solve a problem in real time. This is very gratifying for developers.”

Faster issue resolution

Resilience is key for a business like Cellulant, which operates on a shared-revenue model. It doesn’t make money if its systems are down. New Relic monitoring has allowed the company to achieve that in spades.

“There are limits to how reliable we can make systems,” says Murage. “But when something breaks, we want to fix it as quickly as possible. With the tracing we've been able to get out of the New Relic platform, we’ve been able to reduce the mean time to issue resolution by as much as 50%—which in turn has helped us recover from failures much faster.”

Combine this with 15 times faster throughput and a 300% reduction in latency since migrating to AWS and deploying New Relic, and you can’t help but have happier customers. Confirms Murage, “Now that we’re not just throwing resources at application problems but rather identifying and fixing the root cause thanks to New Relic, we’re seeing a drastic reduction in the number of customers who are having a bad experience.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Murage envisions a long relationship with New Relic. “We had a lot of bespoke software and an extremely complex ecosystem,” he says, “but New Relic held our hand throughout the journey and helped us integrate everything onto the platform. As we advance our own platform, we fully expect New Relic to continue to advance theirs, providing services that align with the future of our business and the evolving technology landscape.”