How Goldman Sachs and Bank of America use the cloud and containers

Security conscious financial services firms are investing heavily into new technologies

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J Ram, managing director at Goldman Sachs (left) and Ryan Thomas, head of architecture and technology strategy at Bank of America speak at the Tectonic Summit in New York in December.

Goldman Sachs – considered by many to be the gold standard in the financial services world – has been on a six-year journey to embrace cloud computing, which has culminated in about 85% of the company’s workloads now operating in a cloud framework, says J Ram, managing director at the bank who heads up its cloud platform business unit.

As companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America become more comfortable operating in the cloud, there are even more changes on the horizon. Officials from these financial giants say they’re now focused on exploring what benefits application containers can bring to their environments too.

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These financial institutions operate at a huge scale: Goldman Sachs has 8,000 developers overseeing 4,500 apps. At Bank of America there are about 17,500 developers, 12,500 support staff and about 9,000 infrastructure workers. Officials from each company recently spoke at the Tectonic Summit in New York, hosted by application container company CoreOS.

Containers have swept across the cloud and application development market rapidly in the past 18 months as a way to package applications or app components. Ram says the goal of using containers at Goldman is to think about application development, infrastructure management and operations along a single continuum.

“Prior to this, we had to force things into a way that seemed like a continuum,” Ram said. “(Containers) allow infrastructure folks to start optimizing the platform, application teams to think about application delivery and operation teams to think about operational scale and handling that complexity.” Ram said Goldman Sachs already has some production workloads running in containers.

Ryan Thomas, head of architecture and technology strategy at Bank of America, says container usage is being explored extensively. There are dozens of test and development environments using containers now and he expects there will be hundreds by next year.

For Thomas, containers represent a way to get the company’s developers and infrastructure workers to focus on the highest-value work. Too much time is spent on managing middleware systems and messaging buses that don’t add value for the bank. “Simplifying that and really flipping ratios of people who are just maintaining, supporting, managing applications, to people who are pushing the applications forward and bringing more value for our customers is the foundation of the goal,” he says. “It’s not about cost reduction, it’s about reinvesting the people and the talent we have to really business value added things for our customers.”

Simplification means consolidation too. Thomas says Bank of America has condensed from 64 data centers last year to 31 this year. It plans to have only eight data centers by the end of 2016. Part of that is gained by efficiencies in infrastructure and operations, but both Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are also using public cloud resources too. Thomas says Bank of America uses the public cloud for non-security sensitive workloads. Goldman is using the public cloud in a “secure bubble” for certain workloads, Ram says.

None of this has been easy though. Thomas says Bank of America’s IT footprint has been “cobbled together” from various mergers and acquisitions, such as Merrill Lynch falling under the BoA brand in 2009. “Don’t underestimate the complexity you already have in your operating environment,” says Ram, echoing the point. Figuring out how existing operational tooling, legacy source code and configuration management processes are integrated into a new world of cloud and containers has been a massive challenge. Not to mention, the industry is maturing quickly.

When operating at the scale these companies are, people get zeroed in on optimizing for their specific environment and not looking at the big picture, Thomas says. The key is to focus on changes that can impact a wide audience. It’s easy to focus on the shiny new toy that will impact less than 1% of operations, but a strategic investment that creates a 5% boost in efficiency across an organization is much more impactful. Staying focused and not trying to “boil the ocean” by doing too much is a difficult balance to strike though, Thomas says.

As financial service companies, security is of paramount concern too for Ram and Thomas. “As you move into a container world… you’re moving more and more into a world that hasn’t been vetted with the compliance and regulatory environments, and that’s a challenge for us, and that’s always somewhat of a lag for us,” Thomas says. With that being said, Thomas says containers have real promise at the institution, it’s just a matter of ensuring they’re safe to use and integrate with the bank’s operations.

Ram says the technology is the easy part. “It’s not the technology that’s going to stop you, it’s the organization and the organizational culture that’s going to stop you a lot more.”

This story, "How Goldman Sachs and Bank of America use the cloud and containers " was originally published by Network World.

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