Rackspace: Dedicated, private or public: the right cloud solution – Darren Norfolk

As banks continue to operate using a wealth or personal data, safety and security are paramount when considering the storage of this information. Darren Norfolk, managing director, UK, Rackspace, details how the managed cloud provider is a perfect partner for financial institutions looking to upgrade their legacy systems.

Can you please introduce Rackspace as a company and elaborate on your core business?

Darren Norfolk: Rackspace is a managed cloud provider. Our approach is differentiated by the specialised support skills we offer to architect and manage not only our customers' cloud infrastructures, but also the many complex tools and applications that they need to run on top of them - we call this 'Fanatical Support'.

Founded in the US in 1998, today Rackspace achieves approximately 26% of its global revenues from our international customer base. Our global HQ is located in San Antonio, Texas, and we have offices in several countries including the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and Hong Kong. We also have data centres in various locations around the world including several in the US as well as Crawley (UK), Hong Kong and Sydney. Rackspace serves customers in 120 countries, including two thirds of the Fortune 100.

How does that relate in particular to the financial services industry?

Rackspace has a great deal of experience working with financial institutions and some of the biggest UK retail banks. We provide them with a wide range of diverse hosting functions that are capable of meeting the mission-critical needs of a modern-day digital banking operation. These global financial institutions place their trust in us to deliver on a wide variety of requirements. These same firms depend on our experience and expertise in managing the complexity that arises across different technology platforms. This includes the implementation of grid computing, high-performance cloud, and help in moving applications from private clouds through to different public cloud platforms such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Rackspace understands the need to manage the inherent complexity of multiple platforms while accommodating change quickly to satisfy the demands of customers in the financial sector. To do this, we provide solutions delivered from our own data centres, as well as solutions delivered on private cloud instances in our customers' data centres. We also support environments in other third-party cloud data centres where needed.

What do you see as the key challenges facing financial institutions in the area of data centre/cloud optimisation?

One of the toughest initial challenges for these firms is migrating to cloud within the scope of a business model that makes sense for their own operations. There is a business engineering architecture hurdle to overcome here, but this is a track that Rackspace has run on many times before, so we know the course.

We often work with large financial institutions that have existing data centres that they cannot close down for a number of years. However, cloud is about ease of use and flexibility, so we can use optimisation intelligence and software management techniques to overcome these challenges. Financial firms typically have thousands of applications that need to be evaluated for cloud readiness and they need to meet complex internal security requirements as well. Also at this layer we bring our Rackspace Managed Security services forward as robustness of operation against advanced persistent threats (APTs) is of paramount importance in this sector. Our specialist engineers have extensive experience of being able to work at this large-scale enterprise level of business where complex service level agreements (SLAs) are the norm.

What are the main reasons why clients come to Rackspace rather than your competitors?

I know from first-hand experience that our clients - and I am talking about firms in every industry here - work with us because we help them tap into the power of cloud without the expense and complexity of doing it all on their own. We architect, deploy, manage and secure businesses' cloud infrastructures, allowing them to focus their valuable resources on their core goals. This particularly resonates with financial services clients as they often approach us while struggling with re-architecting huge business operations and processes that need a massively powerful and flexible computing backbone.

The key to overcoming these challenges is working with a cloud provider like Rackspace that is 'cloud agnostic', which means customers aren't locked into a platform that's not working for them. This allows them to choose a 'best fit' solution whether that be a dedicated, private or public-managed cloud, and, in Rackspace's case, offers support on leading technologies such as OpenStack, Microsoft Azure and AWS. Having these options available allows customers to consume the right level of service at a time and pace that meets their business requirements.

We find that, by working in this way, we can develop great relationships with customers and they trust us to manage
their critical environments, which allows them to focus on more business-critical tasks. Financial institutions probably understand the need to concentrate on core competencies, and stay agile while locking down compliance and security better than anyone.

What, in your view, are the leading causes of downtime, data loss and hardware damage, and how can financial institutions guard against them?

Contemporary cloud-centric digital banking as we recognise it today hasn't been around for many years, but electronic 'computerised' banking has been around for several decades. This means that many institutions are shouldering the burden of operating applications running on legacy environments, leading to an unclear understanding and potential disconnect in what we can call 'application dependencies'; for example, elements of software application structure that 'talk' to each other to perform the functions they were designed to carry out.

This incongruent situation alongside outdated security provisioning can lead to data loss and system damage at a variety of levels, which will ultimately result in downtime.

What are the largest avoidable costs associated with data centre infrastructure and what methods can be used to avoid these?

The most significant avoidable costs associated with data centre infrastructure are the capital expenditure (capex) costs of establishing a physical site operation in the first place. This large investment in capital infrastructure then immediately becomes a stake in the ground - from the point of purchase it represents a burden, a definite piece of infrastructure for specific projects the way they stand today. In the modern age of digital banking, this action represents 'siloed' thinking as opposed to a serviced-based approach that takes a more complete view of an unknown future. Rackspace recommends that financial firms take the opportunity to buy their infrastructure as a service now and avoid a capex-heavy contractual commitment to capital.

Owing to the sensitivity and need for absolute confidentiality pertaining to customers' accounts, banks can never really enter data into a public cloud. How can financial institutions partner with a cloud services provider without entering into a public cloud?

This is a flawed perception in the market. Given the correct level of governance, rigour, management and technology, banks can use the public cloud for a wide range of services. There are requirements and specifics to every implementation of course, so financial institutions should ensure they partner with a managed service and infrastructure broker that has the breadth to offer a variety of cloud models to ensure the correct data and application workload is placed in the appropriate location. Depending on the risk profile each client needs to work within, Rackspace will tailor a custom-aligned combination of private, public and hybrid solutions to fit the business case and the technology platform requirements. This way, they can have confidence in the longevity, robustness and performance functionality of the public cloud.

Looking at SLAs, it is extremely important for financial institutions to ensure that their service provider has guarantees regarding the performance of its services. What is your response if institutions ask you for additional guarantees if your SLA does not by itself suffice?

Our SLAs are extremely comprehensive and we offer 99.999% platform availability guarantee for critical applications. Our broad portfolio of services enables us to derive the correct level of availability, as determined by our customers' requirements. For us, this is not a case of one platform fits all - our enterprise solution architects work with customers' application owners to design tailored solutions that meet business needs.

What do you advise on errors to avoid when choosing a cloud services provider?

Don't move to cloud for cloud's sake. Don't migrate just because you think you need to move all legacy applications or data stores forward. After all, some legacy technology still exists, and it is called legacy because it works and is perfectly functional for now. Instead, take a more pragmatic business-case view of what your firm is trying to achieve. Are you looking to move away from a lock-in capex model? Are you looking to bring new, more diverse and cost-effective services online? Are you looking for a quicker time to market, with new products and services?

Take the time to evaluate these questions and don't take a high-risk approach to cloud adoption. The technologies that work for your applications today may not be the technologies that work for your applications in the future. That's why it's vital to choose a hosting and cloud-agnostic partner that will help your business move at a pace that optimises business benefits.

Is there anything else you would like to add with regard to data centre optimisation and digital banking?

My final thoughts would be to emphasise that managed cloud offers a genuine alternative to increasingly outdated notions of traditional on-premise infrastructure. The progression to managed cloud-driven agility can be particularly useful for financial services firms as they look to evolve during a time of great disruption in the industry.

As an example, we have recently helped one of the UK's largest challenger banks become more agile, bringing performance improvements for critical applications by as much as 300%. This is through hosting its applications across a hybrid service made up of dedicated, private and public-cloud technologies. It's about recognising what our financial services customers are trying to achieve, and understanding the inherent nature, scope, governance challenges and velocity at which these firms need to operate.

Darren Norfolk, managing director, UK, Rackspace.