A tech refresh to private clouds
Investors Bank (soon to be part of Citizens Financial Group in 2022) has served customers since 1926, and currently has 160 retail branches. When the bank decided to transition its IT infrastructure to the cloud, business continuity was paramount. Their customers’ experiences could not be compromised, and their competitive market position had to be maintained. Investors Bank worked with Microsoft Azure Gold partner Applied Information Sciences (AIS) to create a strategy that “slowed down to go fast.” By taking time to make assessments, line up change champions, and stress-test the migration of their workloads, Investors Bank used Azure VMware Solution to seamlessly migrate its data center to new virtual machines in private clouds.
Investors Bank started a three-year technology transformation process in the second quarter of 2019. At the time, says Christopher Blotto, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer he couldn’t walk more than a few steps in the office without somebody mentioning that the bank’s technology platform was experiencing latency issues. “We really needed a technology refresh. We were steady-state for so long, and we couldn’t just think about a refresh as ‘rip and replace,’” he says. “We had to think about it in partnership with the business and what our digital objectives were.” The bank needed a platform and infrastructure to enable the digital-forward, omnichannel strategy that worked for its customer experience team.
During the initial stage of the bank’s technology transformation, Investors changed its entire desktop experience to Windows 10, along with making its first move to the cloud. Blotto explains that, in partnership with AIS, the bank was able to begin the journey with minimal impact to users and improved collaboration and agility in response to evolving business needs. “Through the process, we created new experiences such as Office 365, Microsoft Teams, and SharePoint Online as well as various mobility options,” Blotto says. From there, Investors started working on the platform migration to Azure.
“Given the relationship we already had with Microsoft, we knew we could move forward with Azure,” says Anthony Zurawiecki, Vice President and Head of Infrastructure and Engineering at Investors Bank. “We just needed to find the right partner to help us redeploy the bank’s VMware-based enterprise workloads to Azure,” he says. Investors Bank’s partner selection criteria included experience in cloud migration, security protocols, and the ability to scale as needed during the bank’s three-year journey to the cloud. Investors again chose to engage AIS, a Microsoft Azure Gold partner that specializes exclusively in solutions that include all three Microsoft clouds.
Preparing for success
One of Investors’ first steps was to work with Microsoft and AIS to conduct a cloud economic assessment. This assessment had to pass a rigorous review by the bank’s executive management subcommittee – a group of senior leaders including the Chief Risk Officer, Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Administration Officer, and Chief Audit Officer – assembled to evaluate and provide ongoing business oversight of the digital transformation initiative. “We wanted to ensure we came at this from all angles, and not just because we thought cloud was cool and it was the latest trend,” says Blotto.
Establishing a new environment
The most recent phase of the digital transformation at Investors Bank is the implementation of Azure VMware Solution (AVS), which allows Investors to run its VMware workloads natively on Azure. Investors Bank has several Azure virtual machines (VMs) using premium disks to act as servers and backup for Veritas. They built another VM as a domain controller to provide authentication for the Azure servers.
The bank migrated more than 15 TB of data from seven different on-premises file servers to Azure NetApp Files. It has a hub-and-spoke topology using Palo Alto Firewalls as the NVA for data ingress and egress. And to ensure the adaptability of its security model to the new platform, Investors Bank is implementing Microsoft Zero Trust safeguards, which include integrated security, compliance, and identity solutions that work across platforms and cloud environments.
Realizing the benefits
Zurawiecki and his team see additional potential due to the positive effects of the migration to AVS on their data storage model. “We were going to need to add more nodes, which are expensive, just to meet storage requirements. But everybody at Microsoft and AIS heard our concerns regarding costs, and through them we learned there is an additional [data storage] product for AVS that will become available leveraging iSCSI [internet Small Computer Systems Interface],” says Zurawiecki.
iSCSI is the IP-based networking standard for linking data storage facilities.Instead of needing storage requirements on the AVS node, the iSCSI protocol will allow use of an Azure storage consumption pay-per-use model that makes use of Azure disks pools for Azure VMware Solution, which is currently in public preview.
The financial benefits of the migration extend to the savings that result from paying only for the resources they consume “versus having to stand up a whole environment that might sit idle 49 percent of the time,” states Blotto. “I really think it [the Azure VMware Solution] is going to allow us to accelerate innovation. We never had the ability to scale up or down to prove or disprove a technology by rapidly standing up environments to serve as innovation labs. Now we have the ability and environment where we can do that. Try before we buy.”
The Investors team has used the skills and knowledge it gained during its Azure Native Solutions training to think creatively when designing solutions for systems and applications. “It’s given the team additional tools in their arsenal and allows them to think outside the box,” says Zurawiecki. “Then in the future, when they need to find innovative alternative solutions to challenging tasks, it will allow them to do that.”
Blotto cites the advantages of being in an environment with better-connected systems and streamlined access. “Even little things, like being in a different building and having connectivity to everything we have in Azure, whether it’s Office 365, One Drive, Active Directory, or whatever else, is a real benefit,” he says. “There’s one connection now instead of separate connections.”
Assuring business continuity
One of the important factors in evaluating and choosing AVS was business continuity. Not only has there been no downtime during the transformation, but customer satisfaction has also remained consistently high. “If there’s any impact on the customer experience, that’s most likely a bad thing,” says Blotto. “But so far, there hasn’t been any noise whatsoever, so that’s mission accomplished. Our goal was to have a completely seamless transition, and we did.”
“When I look at the speed at which we’re migrating the application workloads, I have yet to see some of my industry peers able to execute at that same speed,” says Blotto.
Transforming the organization’s data center to run on an AVS platform reflects Investors Bank’s ongoing effort to use business management tools that ultimately help the organization better meet its customers’ needs. The data center transformation project aligns with the company’s vision to “always do what’s right for each and every customer — making sure they get the right products and great value — to help them meet their everyday banking needs as well as to achieve their long-term goals.”
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