Arup Group CIO on selecting AWS, GCP, Azure and Alibaba for its multi-cloud strategy

Sooraj Shah Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah May 18, 2020
Arup CIO Rob Greig talks us through his strategy for multi-cloud, including how he ensures he has the right skills across the organisation.

Image of an Arup building
(Image sourced via Arup website)

Arup, is a global professional services firm, headquartered in London, with nearly 16,000 staff consisting of designers, planners, engineers, architects, consultants and technical specialists, working across the built environment.

The company, founded in 1946, has worked on projects including the Sydney Opera House, the corporate headquarters of Apple and the use of robotic welding and 3D printing to create the 12m MX3D bridge in Amsterdam. It is currently working on Europe's largest civil engineering project Crossrail.

Despite being involved in so many large-scale projects, which have relied heavily on new technologies, the company's back office systems required a big refresh when Arup Group CIO Rob Greig joined the organisation back in September 2017. This included the task of migrating towards cloud infrastructure and services - which was a surprise to Greig as he had led cloud transformations back in 2010 and did not expect to have to do so again seven years later.

Greig said:

The architectural engineering consultancy sector as a whole is quite behind - it is one of the last to transform and there are good reasons for that; many of the design and engineering tools are built on the technologies of the 90s and early 2000s before the cloud, and the way those tools work lend themselves to an on-premise, desktop-type architecture and although the world has moved on, these tools are still very much relevant to how engineering and design is done.

This has held the sector back from moving towards the cloud, and therefore businesses didn't create the business case to move forward. Now, Greig says, there is recognition that the cloud is needed - and this has grown even more so since the pandemic began.

Arup had begun working on a digital transformation journey prior to Greig’s arrival; the company wanted to position itself as a digital leader in the built environment. When he arrived, Greig and his team focused on this further, and created a digital executive document which focused on challenging and channelling the company's investments in digital. He sees his role as refocusing digital and technology for the firm.

The team created digital technology strategy, with the first step being bringing together all of its disparate IT teams under one digital technology team. Greig believed this would help the business to become more customer-focused and user-centric, as well as underpin all of the company's digital transformation efforts, which extend beyond pure technology projects.

The second area he wanted to focus on was cyber security; the company would need to reassess its risk and security posture, particularly as it's increasingly using IoT and AI-driven products and services. Finally, the team would embark on a cloud programme.

The reason Greig wanted to cover these three aspects was because he believed that by focusing on the service the company delivers, the security of the services and the movement of services to the cloud, the company would then be forced to address everything else.

He said:

That would include, ERP, corporate systems, data governance, processes, controls, all aspects of the technology stack have to be looked at to be successful at those three things.

Multi-cloud is the new way forward

Arup has been working with Claranet to help shift towards the cloud environment.

The company wanted a multi-cloud approach, adopting all four of the big hyperscale cloud vendors; Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Alibaba Cloud.

The professional services firm began with Microsoft Azure because it was effectively a Microsoft house already, with Office 365 in place across the entire business already.

Greig said:

Microsoft is well set up to support the enterprise, they understand the enterprise and it enables you to move more quickly in terms of transitioning and their global presence is important as well. As we have a lot of developers, who develop unique and different and specialised digital products and services for our clients, and AWS is the place to go to for a lot of that, and they have a slightly different offer, which gives us flexibility and agility.

Google is a new entrant and we want to make sure that we can leverage that and benefit from their approach - I think there is room for [all of the cloud vendors]. Meanwhile, Alibaba Cloud is very much about making sure we're provisioning the right services that can meet client needs in China.

While many CIOs are taking the multi-cloud approach and often use a mix of AWS, Azure and GCP, Alibaba is not as often considered - perhaps because the businesses they work for do not have a presence in China.

Greig explained that selecting Alibaba was down to a number of reasons, including the confidence of clients as well as accessibility and connectivity. He said the other cloud providers often have a reduced feature set in China, often because of the regulations in place, which makes Alibaba a more attractive proposition, while there is also data sovereignty that needs to be taken into account - which again feeds into client confidence.

One criticism of a multi-cloud strategy is that it requires an enormous amount of talent, as often cloud specialists may work specifically on one type of infrastructure. But Greig disagrees.

I would challenge that - I think you limit yourself by doing that. People used to say this with networking switches, and they may opt for Cisco-only, even though the likes of HP and Juniper are very similar to Cisco, and a good networking engineer can pretty much do all of them.

I think the same can be applied to cloud. Two and a half years ago we had seven people who had cloud skills, within 12 months we had trained 150 people internally, and so the approach for us has to be to go for a homegrown approach, and that's why using the likes of Microsoft, AWS and Claranet has been helpful because they've brought that experience with them.

However, Greig does believe there are some technologies, such as VMware, which are difficult to hire for. This has prompted the company to move away from these types of technologies as they're increasingly expensive to hire for and retain. He believes that people are now considering the long-term skill sets required, as well as the deals being put in front of them by a vendor, when making a technology purchasing decision.

While the company is still transforming, the pandemic has made it even more clear that the moves that Greig and his team are making are the right ones for the future of the business - he believes this will give them added incentive to continue the work they've carried out up until now.

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