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Senior Editor

How a giant like GE found home in the cloud

Apr 18, 20167 mins
Amazon Web ServicesCloud ComputingCloud Management

GE’s CTO for IT talks about the obstacles and opportunities when transitioning to the cloud

For Jim Fowler, CIO of General Electric, there’s a simple reason he is marching the company toward the cloud: “I’m not going to sell another aircraft engine because I run a global compute factory very well; I’m not going to sell another locomotive because I figured out how to engineer the user experience really well for my developers; I’m not going to sell an oil and gas pump because I’ve figured out how to do self-service,” he said at last year’s Amazon Web Service’s re:Invent conference. “That’s AWS’s differentiator. That’s what they do well.” 

GE, the 123-year-old staple of the global industrial sector, is going all in on the cloud. The company plans to migrate 9,000 applications to public IaaS over the next three years. It is reducing its data centers from more than 30 to the single digits.

But for a company with $117 billion in annual revenue; tens of thousands of apps; hundreds of thousands of servers; petabytes of storage and networks in hundreds of countries around the world, migrating to the cloud isn’t as easy as lifting and shifting.

Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of GE Information Technology Chris Drumgoole says it’s been a complicated process with many bumps along the way. And Drumgoole says there’s more that vendors, regulators and members of the open source community could do to help ease this process for others.

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GE is a multi-billion dollar buyer of IT services, so what their executives say has sway in the market. But teaming up with other customers only amplifies that voice. That’s why Drumgoole has joined the Open Networking User Group and specifically ONUG’s recently formed Hybrid Cloud Working Group. The group is preparing a list of recommendations that it will take to leading cloud and technology vendors. Drumgoole is hoping that aggregating concerns from customers across different industries will help alleviate some of the leading issues that companies moving to the cloud are facing. 

Vendors thrive in a complex world

“What we’re using to drive IT here is simplicity,” Drumgoole says. But fundamentally, many IT vendors thrive on complexity and helping customers manage it. “We’ve taken a step back and said instead of trying to manage the complex environment better, why don’t we simplify the environment?”

GE isn’t alone in advocating for a simpler world of IT. Facebook three years ago founded the Open Compute Project, which gives big users a way to assemble their own customized hardware instead of buying into proprietary hardware stacks. “The money is following simplicity,” Drumgoole says. “We don’t want to buy complexity we don’t need.”

Just because GE’s executive team made a strategic decision to embrace the cloud years ago doesn’t mean that its regulators, internal operators, partners and customers have been on board.

Some of GE’s core industries – energy, health care and finance – are heavily regulated by protocols that were written for a different era. “They assume the construct of a client-server world,” Drumgoole says. “The regulations are written in a way that assumes there’s a server, a hypervisor and a physical data center that you control. Fundamentally, those don’t apply in the cloud world.”

The whole point of the public cloud is that vendors – like AWS – provide those components as a service to customers. “The constructs of the regulations haven’t taken into consideration the advances in technology,” he adds. Through the ONUG working group, Drumgoole is hoping a single, more modern nomenclature across various providers that regulators can use could be developed for the next generation of policies.

If you build the cloud, will they come?

Embracing a cloud-first mentality across the organization required adjustments internally, too. Drumgoole arrived at GE two years ago to find the traditional angst between software developers and infrastructure operators. Devs can’t get the infrastructure they need; ops folks don’t know what the software teams need. Cloud seemed like the natural answer to this problem.

GE invested in building tools, creating systems and processes for managing it and ensuring regulatory compliance. When GE’s IT team introduced the cloud services, some of those software developers and ops teams didn’t want to use it. “Some of the legacy, single-technology developers struggled with deploying and moving apps when we took away the support envelope of a traditional infrastructure team,” he says, adding that the challenge has largely been overcome, though it required a shift in mindset.

Take matters into your own hands

So on the one hand, GE wants to enable developers to work as quickly as possible creating new applications and not being held back by needing infrastructure. At the same time, that has to be done in a sanctioned way that complies with regulations and customer priorities. Developers can’t be running up unnecessarily large bills for IaaS public cloud services, or being exposing sensitive data without proper protections.

Drumgoole says there aren’t good tools in the market for this. Many cloud management platforms amount to putting up gates and checks, with people checking those processes and other people checking the checkers’ work, creating audit logs that basically amount to overwhelming data dumps. “That wasn’t going to work,” Drumgoole says.

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So what did GE do? It made its own tools called the Bot Army. It’s a series of small software components developed internally that automatically enforce behaviors behind the scenes. The Reaper Bot is one, it searches cloud environments for customer, financial or other sensitive data and takes immediate actions of shutting down a cloud service or quarantine the data or a user.

Drumgoole says the Bots work, but he’s disappointed the market doesn’t have better proprietary or open source tools to manage these issues.

Where you really save money in the cloud

Some people may assume that going to the cloud is a substantial cost savings. But Drumgoole says it’s not significantly less expensive to use the cloud for a company the size of GE. “And if you do it wrong, the cloud can be a lot more expensive,” he says.

GE has found a way to save up to 35% or more by running in the cloud though. The key is that it’s not just infrastructure savings. Drumgoole says users can only achieve those savings by fundamentally changing the process involved in managing infrastructure and applications. “Instead of 10 people involved in a deployment cycle, it’s one, with a Reaper Box making sure they’re doing it right,” he says. “When you take out all of that outsourced contract labor, that’s where the real savings come in.”

There’s more vendors could do

Instead of having to build the Bot Army, Drumgoole says he would have loved to have been able to use an open source project, backed by a major technology vendor, that manages those issues.

There are other things vendors could be doing better too. Software makers are taking too long to evolve their platforms to a true SaaS model, he says. Just hosting the application and charging for it monthly does not make it a true cloud app, Drumgoole contends.

On the IaaS public cloud side, Drumgoole still believes AWS is a more feature-rich platform compared to any other in the market, but Microsoft has been investing heavily in Azure, making the gap between the two “smaller rather than bigger.”

Still, given GE’s international presence, Drumgoole says he’d like to see another non U.S.-based cloud provider of significant scale in the market to satisfy customers, particularly those in foreign countries, who may not be comfortable with the company’s cloud provider being subject to U.S. law.

If there’s one thing Drumgoole has learned, it’s that when it comes to the cloud, it pays to go all in. “If you want to stick your toe in the water, then you’re probably going to be disappointed,” he says. “If we weren’t all in, we wouldn’t get the real benefit of the cloud.” Now, through ONUG, Drumgoole is hoping to make this process easier for others to decide to go all in too.

Senior Editor

Senior Editor Brandon Butler covers the cloud computing industry for Network World by focusing on the advancements of major players in the industry, tracking end user deployments and keeping tabs on the hottest new startups. He contributes to and is the author of the Cloud Chronicles blog. Before starting at Network World in January 2012, he worked for a daily newspaper in Massachusetts and the Worcester Business Journal, where he was a senior reporter and editor of MetroWest 495 Biz. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @BButlerNWW.

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