Nothing demonstrates the importance of technology in the commercial world better than the fact a system originally designed for business purposes is now widely used by consumers across the globe. From iCloud to Dropbox, Gmail to Skydrive, cloud computing is everywhere. Given its ubiquitous presence in modern life, it's perhaps a little strange to consider "the cloud" as a business tool, but for investment banks like Goldman Sachs that's exactly what it is.
A cloud of our own
While the "public cloud" may be a great place to store your photos, music and documents, Goldman Sachs requires a greater deal of control over how its data is stored. Technology teams at Goldman Sachs have been providing virtual desktops and server infrastructure as a service for a while now. They just didn't call it the cloud.
"All our desktops reside in machine rooms," says Orla Dunne, Head of Technology Infrastructure in Europe, "and we've branded that NDS which stands for Network Desktop Solution. You can go anywhere within the firm, or even anywhere in the world, and log in to exactly the same desktop. You could even use portable devices like tablet computers to access it." While this might seem relatively commonplace in the iPhone age, it's worth remembering this ability to work anywhere is still relatively new.
"One of the good things with virtualisation is if you do it well, it isn't noticed," says Ganesh Swaminathan, a member of the Virtualisation and Cloud Computing team. "Our server platforms are running in a virtualised infrastructure in the data centre as well, which gives us a smaller physical server footprint and allows the business a lot of agility in terms of being able to react to things very quickly. It makes no difference to our developers where the servers are located."
While the internal cloud is effective to an extent, the next step for Goldman Sachs is to move towards a hybrid cloud, combining the benefits of a public cloud (reduced expenses, greater elasticity) with the security offered by the private cloud. Ganesh explained to us the need for this additional protection: "The security implications for a finance organisation using a public service are very different to the implications for a general website. If we're performing critical client transactions, the public cloud may not yet be the right place for this."
Understandably, this process of moving to a hybrid cloud is happening gradually. "We're starting with low-risk workloads," says Ganesh, "- for example, desktops for temporary staff. Desktops are a good start because the risk and potential impact to the firm of a security breach here is more manageable than one in a trading application. We have internal testing environments where we isolate a part of the cloud and test its resilience. Like any other company, we have partners who do penetration testing and vulnerability analysis."
Keep it secret, keep it safe
Goldman Sachs regularly receives confidential information as part of normal client relationships. To breach a confidence or to use that information improperly or carelessly would be unthinkable. Given that backdrop, ensuring that sensitive data is protected and controlled is a key concern.
Even when using the public cloud, "we'll always want to have isolated containers and keep the control of data within the firm," says Orla. To address this need, Goldman Sachs have also developed SecureDocs, an application that allows employees on the road to access the current version of a working document on their iPad from anywhere in the world. "SecureDocs puts files into a secure container on the iPad, so we retain control of the documents. It's been very powerful for our travelling users," says Orla.
Innovations in cloud computing aren't simply limited to issues of security and encryption. Goldman Sachs is also at the forefront of exploring green technologies, with being carbon-neutral their long-term goal. "We have to reduce the environmental impact of technology without impacting client service or performance," explains Ganesh. "Virtualisation is very useful as it allows us to abstract away from the underlying hardware and we can manage server usage to reduce the total workload. For instance, we have power management software across our desktops which puts them into a sleep-like state after a period of inactivity."
Challenges like this and the pace of technological innovation are, according to Orla and Ganesh, what makes this a thrilling time to be working in technology at a bank. "The time it used to take to solve a problem was measured in years, now it's measured in months - if not weeks," explains Ganesh. "The pace of innovation will only increase, and that's really exciting."