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US utility provider PG&E on ditching the datacentre and going cloud-first

US-based utility provider Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) discusses how getting out of the datacentre business and into the cloud is helping meet its regulatory, affordability and innovation targets

US-based utility provider Pacific Gas & Energy (PG&E) is adopting a cloud-first strategy in 2018 to meet the renewable energy needs of its customers and regulatory requirements of the business.

The state of California, where PG&E operates, introduced a law in 2015 stating that more than 50% of its electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030.

While industry estimates suggest California is on course to reach that target well ahead of 2030, John Nichols, director of enterprise architecture at PG&E, said the deadline has served to sharpen company minds about how it consumes IT resources, as customer energy usage patterns change and disruption occurs.

“Our customers now have choices,” Nichols told attendees, during the partner keynote at the recent Amazon Web Services (AWS) Re:Invent 2017 conference.

“Customers can choose to band together, create a coalition and purchase power as a wholesaler. Additionally, our customers can choose to go and be completely independent using solar. These reasons, and others, are why PG&E is very focused on affordability.

“This is driving PG&E to look at the grid in different ways: how do we manage it [and] how do we make sure you can [access these resources] in a safe and reliable way?”

Digging into disruption

PG&E looked at how other companies have responded to similar disruption in their industries, and also took inspiration from the organisations responsible for it, said Nichols.

This evaluation of the market resulted in the realisation that almost all of these companies were using cloud in one form or other, prompting PG&E to rethink its own IT procurement and deployment strategy.

“This work led to a cloud strategy, starting in 2018, where we’ll be cloud-first. So anything new we build will first go to the cloud,” he said.

Given the company’s focus on improving “affordability”, taking steps to reduce the size of its datacentre estate makes sense, but will also help the firm achieve its goal to “embrace innovation”, added Nichols.

“In the past, these two concepts – innovation and affordability – have been two things you cannot pick up as a company simultaneously,” he said.

“When we think about the affordability and innovation challenge, what we realised is cloud enables the impossible. It enables us to look at both and do things with both of them at the same time.“

Cloud Mentorship programme

For its cloud strategy to successfully bed-in next year, Nichols and his team have already done some preparatory work, focusing on changing the culture of the company and securing buy-in from the entire organisation about what it is planning to do.

This has led to the creation of a Cloud Mentorship programme in PG&E, where anyone who expresses an interest in off-premise technologies is assigned an AWS-certified mentor to guide them through it. They also receive learning materials and “unfettered” access to AWS cloud services, Nichols added, to support their training.

“If 10% of the workforce makes the change and operates in the new way, that is the tipping point for the culture,” he said. “So I have a personal goal to get 10% of the workforce at PG&E certified in AWS. Without a lot of fanfare or advertisement, we’ve made great strides towards this goal.”

To date, 13 individuals at PG&E have secured AWS-focused certifications, including Nichols. “What I love about this is it’s not just IT folks coming and asking to be part of this – we have people from our line of business,” he said.

The AWS certification programme has three tiers (Foundational, Associate and Professional) and participants have the option to work their way up across four disciplines, termed Cloud Practitioner, Architect, Developer and Operations. There are also an additional two “specialty” certifications covering Big Data and Advanced Networking.

“Of our 13 qualifications, we have five that are Professional level, which is pretty good for any enterprise, but we didn’t want to stop there,” he said.

Some members of the team – including Nichols – have strived to secure the full gamut of AWS certifications, because of the message it would send to the rest of the business about its commitment to cloud.

“I wanted to understand this and learn, but more importantly I wanted to underscore for the other executives and people at PG&E that a director went and did this and he did this because this is the new way of IT,” he said.

Employee empowerment

The organisation is also supporting its cloud push through the launch of its Digital Innovation Zone initiative, which is geared towards encouraging employees to experiment with AWS cloud services.

“You bring your idea, your prototype idea, and we spin something up and we work with you to make it happen. We’re working with our partners on the methodology for this proto-typing and as soon as we get good at that, we will look to our partners to help us scale,” he said.

“We’re [also] working with our partner network to define our architecture and design of our cloud environment, and we’re doing an assessment of our application portfolio as we speak [to work out what to migrate] – and it’ll be done by some time next year.”

Closing out the session, Nichols credited the prospect of downsizing the company’s datacentre footprint as a source of motivation to keep its cloud plans on track.

“We’re starting a pilot for migrating our applications next year, and the thing that I’m thrilled about (that keeps me looking to the future) is something that will allow us to lower our costs and be more innovative, and that is getting out of datacentre business altogether,” he added.

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