Oct 07 2021

VMworld 2021: How S&P Made Its Cloud Journey Work by Embracing Its Inner Risk-Taker

The financial ratings company is used to getting things right the first time. It needed to learn to accept imperfection.

S&P Global Ratings is not known for taking risks. As one of the world’s largest providers of debt ratings and other financial information on companies and governments around the world, risk aversion is a feature, not a bug, of its culture.

With the company’s cloud journey, however, CTO Marcus Daley acknowledged that its culture had become a problem.

“We produce financial ratings for different asset classes in more than 125 countries — and you can’t get ratings wrong,” Daley said. “Sometimes, that culture carries over into the technology space, and it creates an environment where you don’t ever want to make a mistake. I had to work to change that culture, to remind people that building software, building infrastructure, is different. Quite often, you’re working with beta software that has known defects. So I had to set everyone’s mind at ease and say, ‘Look, we’re going to have some failures. Let’s make sure we learn from those, but we need to go ahead and take calculated risks.’”

Daley, speaking this week at VMworld 2021, the annual event for VMware customers, analysts and partners, said S&P Global Rating’s initial attempts to transition to the cloud were marked by “pit stops and U-turns” caused by the enormity of the effort and a general concern about getting everything right the first time. “We approached it, originally, from the mindset that everything needed to be perfect. It needed to be in the end state before we moved it to the cloud, and every time we tried to do that, it didn’t work. We had to step back.”

What inspired change was a deadline. The New York-based company, which has more than 22,000 employees in offices around the world, had contract renewals approaching on its existing data center environment, and Daley knew that it had to make a change. The previous environment “was not fit for purpose,” he said.

“We simply had to move to another data center provider, and we said, ‘OK, if we’re going to make that kind of move, we might as well move to the cloud.’ But it had to be done in an eight- to 12-month time period — which is crazy, but exciting too,” he recalled. “We no longer had the luxury of time, so we had to make some practical decisions.”

Why Lift-and-Shift Cloud Migrations Can Make Sense

S&P had little choice but to execute a basic “lift and shift” of its old data center into a new cloud environment. A lift-and-shift is a cloud migration strategy in which organizations move applications and data to a cloud platform without making any changes to the applications being moved.

While common, lift-and-shift migrations are not always regarded as a best practice. Some experts argue that applications perform better when they are optimized for the cloud, and that organizations may not be able to avail themselves of all of a cloud platform’s services until such optimization is performed. Still, there are times when it’s the right approach, and Daley maintained that S&P’s lift-and-shift “was highly successful for us,” marking the moment in its cloud journey when “things started to go in more of a straight line.” He said lift-and-shift “gets a bad rap.”

DISCOVER MORE: Learn about Infrastructure-as-a-Service options. 

That is perhaps because of the nature of what S&P was shifting. The company is more than 100 years old; much of the software it uses is a decade old or more, and wasn’t designed for cloud infrastructure. With the expiration of its data center contracts approaching, the company needed to simply move the applications first and worry about optimization later.

“One of the challenges that a lot of CTOs have is a fear of failure, and so they’ll overanalyze,” Daley said. “Or they’ll get overly concerned about the cost implications instead of looking at other business implications. I think sometimes they should say, ‘Look, we’re going to take a bit of a risk here. We’re engineers; we’re good at what we do. We’re going to make this work, despite the fact that we’re going to run into problems.’”

The Benefits of a ‘Multicloud Mindset’

Of course, S&P’s journey was not merely from “its data center” to “the cloud.” It was from many data centers to many clouds. Today, the company operates primarily on Amazon Web Services but also runs workloads on Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform and others.

That’s necessary because S&P is a global company, and the cloud platforms each have greater physical infrastructure in certain parts of the world than others. Many countries, meanwhile, require businesses to maintain data on domestic servers, so multinational corporations like S&P have to maintain their own data centers or use cloud providers with servers in different locations.

“There’s not going to be an AWS for every one of those environments,” Daley explained. “So it was very important for us that we had the option to take advantage of not just Azure or Google, but almost any cloud provider operating in that country. So, being multicloud gave us the option to run all or part of our infrastructure in those regions — a huge win.”

GO DEEPER: Discover best practices for managing and optimizing a multicloud environment

There are also operational benefits to having a “multicloud mindset,” Daley said. “The benefits are not just regulatory; it also gets your engineering staff to a higher level of performance to provide a better user experience.”

Yet operating workloads in multiple clouds adds complexity. That’s why Daley is grateful to be using VMware’s cloud management software, which reduces that complexity substantially. “The fact that I can take a virtual machine that I created and host it in AWS or host it in Azure, and do that with the same tools — in terms of monitoring, deployment and testing of all my pipelines — and still take advantage of all the Azure services, all the AWS services, as if there’s no difference, because really, there isn’t, that’s hugely advantageous to me. I need that portability and it saves me a ton of time.”

Follow all of our coverage during the conference here, or follow our coverage on Twitter at @BizTechMagazine.

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