FINRA CIO Steve Randich pushes the public cloud forward

The CIO of a regulatory agency that reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission — one of the biggest cloud consumers in the world — has made it his mission to help other CIOs — and Amazon Web Services itself — improve cloud computing.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an operational and IT service arm that works for the SEC, is not only a cloud customer but also a technical partner to Amazon whose expertise has enabled the advancement of the cloud infrastructure at AWS.

“Given our data volumes, I would argue that we’re probably the biggest data user in Amazon [Web Services] in terms of simultaneous processing,” says Steve Randich, FINRA’s CIO.

“We spent about a year and a half going through several bottlenecks, taking them out one at a time with Amazon engineers. And now we’re in a good place,” he says. “But for two years, we were testing limits within the public cloud.”

Randich, who came to in 2013 after stints as co-CIO of Citigroup and former CIO of Nasdaq, is no stranger to the public cloud. And, in his experience, the public cloud is “not quite” as infinitely horizontally scalable as many think — though only a handful of enterprises come even close to reaching the barrier, he says.

Still, while not every CIO will be testing the outer limits of the cloud, Randich’s experience with the public cloud — as well as his work in partnering with AWS — underscores a number of trends that industry analysts and executives, as well as IT leaders, see playing out of late around enterprise cloud use.

Deploying new data types for machine learning

Mai-Lan Tomsen-Bukovec, vice president of foundational data services at AWS, sees the cloud giant’s enterprise customers deploying more unstructured data, as well as wider varieties of data sets, to inform the accuracy and training of ML models of late.

While managing unstructured data remains a challenge for 36% of organizations, according to the 2022 Foundry Data and Analytics Research survey, many IT leaders are actively seeking ways of harnessing all types of data stored in data lakes. Gartner maintains, for example, that roughly 80% to 90% of an organization’s data is largely semi-structured or unstructured and is rarely used in AI cloud applications.

As for FINRA, tapping deeply into its data lakes for unused data has been a game changer, says Randich, who is particularly enthusiastic about the work Amazon has done to evolve its cloud platform to support unstructured data, including new varieties of data sets, such as imagery and audio data.

FINRA can now incorporate massive amounts of unused, business-critical data stored in documents into AWS Machine Learning models, Randich says, adding that his organization uses the AWS Comprehend natural language processing platform extensively for entity extraction from unstructured data.

“We use it to digitally review large volumes of documents and extract/highlight items of interest, such as names,” Randich says, noting that this improvement alone will enable his organization and others to apply analytics and ML to much more data than in the past. 

“Our ingestion of data, both structured and unstructured, because of sheer volume, now requires advanced technology like these to process, analyze, and surveil for non-compliance, or worse, actual fraudulence,” he says.

Cutting costs without stifling innovation

Still, increasing cloud costs has become a top issue for CIOs, especially as they ramp up digital transformations.

To that end, AWS has been increasing efforts to educate large enterprise customers on how to adopt intelligent tiering storage options to reduce costs of hosting dormant data — while paying premium for the data in most active use in applications running on AWS.

Randich says FINRA spends $200 million per year with AWS, a number that causes some consternation in the C-suite. Yet, he says that cost is in line with the agency’s original growth projections when it first adopted AWS.

“I’ve done that analysis and the infrastructure cost savings, specifically around hardware and private data center infrastructure is 40% cheaper in AWS than it would be in a private data center based on our calculations. And that’s exactly the number that we projected when we started the journey back in 2013,” Randich says, adding that AWS does a good job automating suggestions for migrating data to lower-tier storage options — or removing it altogether.

Randich is also continuously monitoring ways to engineer the most productive outcomes using the elasticity of the cloud, Amazon S3 Intelligent Tiering, and shaving on volume licensing costs. For example, FINRA saved 35% migrating large volumes of data from Amazon S3 Standard to lower-cost storage options.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing in the last few years is looking at our SLAs. And algorithmically matching the SLA requirements with spot pricing so that we could schedule our workloads [and exploiting them] when the Amazon unit costs are cheapest,” Randich adds.

Cloud industry friction on ‘multicloud’

As one who has hacked away at the code for vulnerabilities, Randich is impressed with how cloud providers, in concert with governments globally, have secured the cloud from external and internal attack, and he urges them to stay ahead of the curve to prevent blackouts, or worse, someone from inside getting access to the controls.  

But FINRA’s CIO remains skeptical about so-called multicloud infrastructure. The SEC, like many other organizations, is technically multicloud in that it uses AWS for some applications and Microsoft Azure for applications such as Office 365, for example. But this is a superficial definition of multicloud, Randich says. For him, a true multicloud infrastructure allows a single enterprise application to run across multiple hypervisors seamlessly — which is not possible today. And he blames cloud vendor infighting for that.

“There’s a whole cottage industry exploiting [unsuccessful] efforts to urge commercial cloud providers to move towards multicloud. I think I’ve been saying we’re five to 10 years away from that,” Randich says. “So we’re no closer.”

“All vendors are competing vigorously for enterprise customers migrating away from data centers, but sometimes they go too far in their competitive tactics,” he says, pointing to what he alleges Microsoft has done in preventing FINRA from running SharePoint and Office 365 on Citrix on the AWS cloud. Microsoft has not responded to that as of press time.

“They’ve suspended that, really forcing us into Azure for those services,” Randich says, hoping all cloud vendors would be more flexible in allowing interoperability. “The vendors are working further apart, it seems, as they were as recently as a year ago.”

Cloud culture wanted

Of course, cloud providers and their tools can only have so much impact on transformation outcomes. Successful cloud strategies require strong leadership and an organizational culture committed to the cloud, as even cloud execs admit.

“What many customers are realizing is that the cultural transformation in a digital journey is incredibly important and the culture and the skills of your team can slow down or speed up your adoption of cloud,” says Tomsen-Bukovec, the highest-ranking female executive at AWS. “Right now, we see a lot more business leaders taking a very intentional approach to leading through cultural change.”

Randich agrees that too many organizations have failed in the cloud due to a lack of understanding about the investment in time, training, and leadership involved in a doing it right.

“We actually advise other organizations on how to do this,” says Randich, who gave the keynote at AWS re:Invent more than six years ago. “We get out there very publicly about our cloud journey to attract talent. But as other people see us out there, a kind of financial regulator who moved to the cloud years ago, it attracts a lot of attention because a lot of companies are struggling with it.”

And through that work, Randich, who loves to talk about the cloud and mentor other CIOs on building cloud infrastructure in the best way possible, is having an impact, having advised as many as 200 companies on how to migrate to the cloud successfully, he says.

Cloud Computing, Government IT