Cliff Saran

CIO interview: Ralph Munsen, CIO, Warner Music Group

As organisations put more and more IT assets into the cloud, it makes more sense to manage networks cloud natively, says Warner Music CIO

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Digital beats – how Warner Music turned to the cloud

In a cloud-native architecture, all communications across IT infrastructure that connect applications and servers should ideally be achieved entirely without requiring data to be exported from the public cloud to an on-premise facility.

Exporting data from the public cloud can be extremely expensive. Logically, the cloud is the best place to deploy the tools required for centralised IT management.

Ralph Munsen is global CIO for the Warner Music Group. The company operates in 79 countries and has one CIO and a central IT function to manage its two major divisions – one for recorded music and the other, Warner Chappell Music, the global music publishing arm.

Munsen says both business functions get all their IT services from Warner Music Group’s global IT function, based in New York, with two main satellite offices in London and Los Angeles. He has a twofold vision for IT: to empower new business models and to drive operational efficiency.

“My team’s focus is about making our supply chains as efficient and nimble as possible, to support our new business models,” he says. “The key is agility. It’s how we contribute to the bottom line, monetise new business and grow revenue.”

The Covid-19 lockdown put a stop to live music events and concerts, but Warner Music Group has been exploring how to run virtual concerts. For instance, in September, the Grammy Award-winning band Twenty One Pilots launched its sold-out Takeøver Tour with an interactive virtual concert experience, powered by Roblox Technology. The virtual concert included a dynamic set list dictated by fans in real time and custom-designed virtual merchandise.

The central IT function provides systems to support finance, royalties recognition, distribution, and local artists and repertoire to discover artists and marketing. Given that the music industry has gone digital, Munsen says Warner Music Group has shifted from manufacturing CDs and vinyl records and their distribution to digital music.

“Warner Music Group is a company that deals in IP [intellectual property]. A master recording is digital,” he says. “In terms of cost and ease of use, it makes sense to have everything virtual.” 

Given that the company’s products are no longer physical CDs and vinyl records, for Munsen, there is no reason why physical, on-premise IT equipment is needed to support business operations. Embracing digital means it is possible for Warner Music Group to take advantage of the cloud to deliver IT services for the whole company.

Munsen says the company is uniquely united to cloud-based computing. “It’s the same cost as on-prem, but there are fewer headaches,” he adds.

Organising centrally

“Centrally, we provide hosting for local desktop services, finance, revenue recognition, royalties and distribution of assets,” says Munsen.

Most of what the company does is big data. When an artist’s tracks are distributed on a music distribution platform such as Spotify, Warner receives a count of how many times each track has been played, which feeds into its royalty systems. Data is also made available for marketing. Staff in regional offices have a mixture of MacBook and Microsoft Surface laptops and iPads. There are also some virtual desktops.

As part of his quest to deliver IT centrally, Munsen asked the IT team to simplify networking. The company uses SilverPeak, which is part of HPE’s Aruba networking arm, for its wide-area networking connectivity, Palo Alto for firewalls and hosts applications on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which has its own network management.

“We need one screen that looks like Norad [North American Aerospace Defense Command], but the cloud makes the nirvana of having a single dashboard more complex,” says Munsen.

Initially, the IT teams began developing a network monitoring system internally to manage the Palo Alto firewalls and monitor the HPE-powered network circuits. But managing the networking for cloud computing can get very complicated. “We were putting more on AWS, and the network was getting worse from a management perspective,” he says.

“We are keeping our best-of-breed network management products and managing the network in a unified way without having to increase the headcount”

Ralph Munsen, Warner Music Group

Because of the complexity of building a single network management dashboard, Munsen and the IT team at Warner Music Group selected cloud networking company Alkira, which supports the management of multicloud domains through a single interface.

By using Alkira, he says it has been possible to simplify network management, reduce operational complexity and improve security and business agility. Alkira integrates third-party network management tools and services into a single platform. Specifically, it enables Warner’s IT function to manage the HPE-powered SD-WAN and its Palo Alto firewalls.

The third-party network management tools are integrated into Alkira’s own dashboard, enabling the IT team to manage, automatically scale and provide network redundancy and high availability. This has improved efficiency and network security, says Munsen.

“We are keeping our best-of-breed network management products and managing the network in a unified way without having to increase the headcount,” he adds. This means that a networking configuration change now involves just a single click, instead of 12 separate tasks.

Thanks to Alkira, Warner Music Group has seen a three-fold reduction in network costs, huge reductions in design validation and network provisioning, and a 70% reduction in cloud network latency. “We can push out firewall routing changes and get them pushed out,” says Munsen.

There are also IT security benefits in having a single dashboard to coordinate the best-of-breed network management tools the company had already deployed. For instance, Munsen says network configuration changes require testing, which often takes many hours to complete manually. “But a machine can run the test in minutes,” he adds. 

Having a single network management interface also reduces the risk of “people stepping on things” by making changes that conflict with other network configurations, he says. As the network becomes more complicated, the risk of conflicting configurations increases. But a single console that sits above individual network management tools, and coordinates them, helps to reduce such issues.

Tools such as Alkira can only work if there are published application programming interfaces (APIs) for network management and cloud-based networking services. For Munsen, this is something that network management definitely needs. “It is about time someone used the API economy in network tooling,” he says.

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