GE: We’re going all-in with the public cloud

In an exclusive interview, COO of IT Chris Drumgoole outlines his aggressive plans to migrate to public cloud services -- and how they support GE's organizational goals

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Almost every big company has at least a toe in the cloud -- a little Amazon here, a little NetSuite there, maybe a VMware private cloud in development. But few companies declare they plan to go all-in with the public cloud, let alone a Goliath the size of GE.

That's precisely where GE is headed, says Chris Drumgoole, COO of IT for GE. In terms of the actual usage today, GE’s public cloud footprint may or may not be much bigger than that of other big corporations. Drumgoole won’t talk specific numbers, but he claims that “north of 90 percent” of the apps deployed by GE this year have been in a public cloud environment.

Before arriving at GE in April 2014, Drumgoole was senior vice president of global operations for Terremark, Verizon’s public cloud subsidiary. As he puts it, GE’s IT operation is already an “internal service provider to our business units” larger than such midtier cloud providers as Terremark or Rackspace. The following is an edited version of an interview I recorded in late September.

InfoWorld: GE has said it plans to reduce its owned and operated data centers by 90 percent and replace them with public cloud services. Those are awfully ambitious goals. What's your current cloud architecture?

Drumgoole: For us, cloud is really about the operating model of changing the way you provision resources. In our space, we are customers of all the big cloud platforms and continue to grow with them. We have a model where we’re operating outside of our four walls in someone else’s environment, but we’ve been able to ensure that GE data -- compute, memory, and storage -- remain single-tenant, even though we may be in a multitenanted data center.

InfoWorld: Are you using private, internal clouds as well as public clouds?

Drumgoole: I’m not a big fan of using the word “internal” cloud, because internal is really, in my opinion, well-orchestrated virtualization that people are calling cloud for marketing purposes. But as an operating model, yes. We have internal platforms that drive those same cloudlike behaviors. We have what EMC or one of those guys would call a private cloud when they're selling you one.

But our vision is: We think that that’s a stopgap. We think it’s a temporary solution. Frankly, we think even the hybrid cloud is really a temporary solution. I think there could be some good debates over how long you mean when you say "temporary." But in our world, we see no reason why everything except the rarest of apps should not end up in a multitenanted environment in the fullness of time.

InfoWorld: In my experience, this is pretty outrageous coming from a large enterprise. You’re really talking about a multitenanted environment in the public cloud?

Drumgoole: Yep. We’re big fans of the idea that everything ends up in the public cloud utility model eventually. "Eventually" is the big caveat, because some people within GE would argue that should be tomorrow, while others would tell you it’s 15 years from now. It’s a subject of good debate. But either way, the regulatory environment we live in right now prohibits it. In a lot of spaces, when we say technically that we think something should be public, and we’re comfortable with it being public, the regulatory environment and the regulators aren’t quite there yet and we end up having to do some sort of private or hybrid cloud. That’s probably one of the biggest barriers to us moving more public.

InfoWorld: How much of your compute, storage, and networking is done in the public cloud now?

Drumgoole: It’s kind of hard to quantify. It depends on whether you’re looking at dollars or application counts and some of that stuff we don’t share. But I’ll tell you, without being coy about it, that it's multiple millions of dollars in terms of annual spend. If you look at our new apps, north of 90 percent of what we deployed this year has gone into a public cloud environment. We still have a lot of old stuff that hasn’t moved yet, but if you look at our new stuff, we’re there.

InfoWorld: Are you talking public-facing or internally facing applications?

Drumgoole: Both.

InfoWorld: Partner-facing as well?

Drumgoole: Yep. We have a market segment where it’s GE and a limited number of commercial partners, so we have applications in that world, too: GE and our customers, GE and maybe several of our partners, delivering a solution to a customer. We’ve made a very big investment within GE in software facing our customers around predictive analytics, Internet of things, and the industrial Internet, all of which resides on the same platforms I’m talking about.

InfoWorld: When you’re talking about predictive analytics and big data, that's a lot of data to move to the cloud.

Drumgoole: Yeah. It’s a ridiculous amount. At our level you get into physics questions around where you’re going to put it and how you’re going to move it. I think people traditionally don’t think of GE when they think of those types of questions, so I’ll give you a little stat.

Take one of the jet engines we make, and if it’s fully instrumented. On a typical flight, it’s going to generate about two terabytes of data. Not everybody fully instruments them, but if you instrument it the way people would like in order to get predictive data, you’re talking about 500GB per engine per flight. A flight with a GE engine takes off or lands every three seconds. All of a sudden, the data gets very, very large very, very fast.

So yeah, there are significant challenges we’re working on around the scale and quantity of the data. Never even mind what you can do with it. Where do you put it? How do you maintain it? How do you ensure it stays secure? How do you move it if you need to move data centers? Things like that.

InfoWorld: That example is a way of backing into some cloud business issues. Huge quantities of data can be a big operating cost in the public cloud. It’s not a capital expense, so initially, you may have the backing of business. But over time, operating costs rise steadily and they can be highly variable. The more you move to the cloud, the more they increase. How have some of the internal politics gone down around those cost issues?

Drumgoole: It’s a deep question actually, when you think about the scale of an organization our size. Capital vs. operating expenses is an interesting conversation, but not as relevant for us as a company, based on the way we’re structured. Anyway, it leads to the deeper question, which is the total cost of ownership over time. I think a lot of people are attracted to opex because they live in a capex-constrained world.

InfoWorld: That’s right.

Drumgoole: They don’t necessarily realize it’s a slippery slope. We try to be very intellectually honest and drive a culture around understanding cost. We’ve driven a shift, and it’s deeper than cost internally. It’s really around the way we think about IT in general.

For many years, the focus in IT was around components. How do I keep the server up, the instance up, the network up, and everything going -- then the applications on top of that?

We really believe that world is changing from an engineered-systems to an integrated-systems world, where the component is no longer the most important piece. It’s around systemic behavior, where systems exist to serve apps. So we’re really trying to shift everything we do as a business, to stop looking at it through the lens of cost per unit of compute or unit of store, and gain the ability to holistically put cost per app together.

When I look at this in a cloud world or any world, really, what is my actual cost to operate this app? When I meet with our business leaders in the field doing deals and helping GE customers, that’s what they care about. They want to know: What is this application that I’m going to run for my customers and what is it really going to cost me? The only caution on the cloud stuff is that it's as easy, if not easier, to end up spending more as opposed to saving, if you don’t go in with your eyes wide open.

InfoWorld: What advice would you have in that context to others?

Drumgoole: Visibility is key. We don’t look at financial metrics through what I’ll call the skewed lens of IT systems. We actually digest the raw provider data, then chop that up, which gives us near instantaneous visibility into costs.

InfoWorld: Did GE develop that monitoring or are you using tools that are available for Amazon or Rackspace or whatever?

Drumgoole: A mix of both. We’re big fans of a tool called Cloudability, which provides actual visibility into the data. If I want to see what something costs, I log into my Cloudability instance. They’re about half of it. The other half of it is that we've structured our operations in such a way that we can feed them the data properly, so we’ve done things like enforcing application registration and tagging.

We have much more granular visibility than anyone has ever been used to. I can have a business owner log into Cloudability, click on the name of an app, and see exactly how much it costs, how much resources it was using. We’re working closely with those guys and others, and we want to drive that into some more commoditylike behavior: "I know this thing is going to use this amount of resources over this amount of time." We’re not quite there yet. That’s more vision stuff, but that’s how we’re thinking about it.

InfoWorld: Another risk factor when you go to public cloud services is reinventing the siloed organization. Different companies give different levels of freedom to individual business units to go out and get their own cloud service. How do you avoid creating silos?

Drumgoole: To the point I made earlier, we really view ourselves to be a service provider to our businesses, so our businesses can buy from us or they can buy from others. The best way to think about it is if you’re my oil and gas division you can come to me, as corporate IT, and buy Amazon in order deploy your applications or you can go to Amazon directly or you can go to Azure directly.

The way we enforce that is we say: OK, if you want to come through me, by definition, you’re going to live and operate in this safe environment. I have already taken care of the things that GE holds dear and our requirements around regulation, security, data privacy and so on. I pre-built and pre-instrumented the environment so that those things are not something you have to worry about. That’s the benefit of coming to me.

If you decide to go on your own, you certainly can. We’re never going to stop you, but understand that now those things are on you and you have to take care of them. I’ll tell you, in practice ... we’ve made that a losing proposition. That’s where scale comes into play. If we ask what it’s going to cost a business unit to go it alone, we truly are cheaper. So no one ever ends up making that decision, ever. We kind of let the market power enforce that as opposed to trying to put a process in place.

InfoWorld: What about cloud integration issues? I’m assuming that almost all of what you’re doing in the public cloud is at the IaaS level.

Drumgoole: We also have a relationship with Pivotal for platform as a service. But that example aside, you’re spot-on. Right now we are primarily focused in the infrastructure space for all the conversations we’re having here. That said, for GE as a business, we’re big fans of SaaS as well, but that’s a separate conversation.

The reason it’s primarily IaaS is that we’re nascent in our journey. I think we’re ahead of most, but we’re still nowhere even close to where we think the future lies. We’re big fans of getting the foundation right. We’re really spending extra time on getting those integrations around IaaS correct, built for scale, built in the new operating model where downtime is simply not acceptable.

InfoWorld: The obvious cultural question that everyone asks about moving toward the cloud is the effect on morale. Is my job being outsourced? Am I going to be a victim? How have you dealt with that?

Drumgoole: It’s a good question. I get asked it any time I speak, especially to our own employees. It’s going to sound like a canned answer, but in our case, it’s true: With our growth rate and the shift that we’re making to software in all of our businesses, there’s no shortage of opportunity to do things up the stack.

The way I answer that question when my own people ask is that the world is your oyster if you’re willing to make the cultural shift. We’ll gladly teach you [to work on things higher up in the stack] -- we want to invest in you. If you want to make that jump as an individual and you can challenge the status quo and be part of that, we have thousands of openings for you to go do stuff.

If you’re not willing to make that shift, then yes, you’re going to have to look at yourself in the mirror and have hard conversations around what your career looks like in IT going forward. We’re lucky enough to be so big and of such scale that we can put the choice on the people and say: It’s on you.

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