When your job is protecting the IT infrastructure of one of the world's largest gold, silver, and platinum trading firms, there's a lot riding on your performance. That's why, when Tom Grounds joined Dallas, TX-based Dillon Gage Metals three years ago, he had some immediate concerns.
"What I walked into here at Dillon Gage, all of our equipment (was) on its last legs," he said. Servers hadn't been patched, and rather than helping the business innovate, staff found that their time was spent just playing catch up.
"When it came to supporting technologies, we just couldn't do it," he said. He knew they had to find a different way.
So starting in the summer of 2013, Grounds and his team started moving their infrastructure to the cloud wherever possible. They switched their productivity software to Office 365, their servers to an Azure private cloud over MPLS, and switched from on-site backups to backups in the cloud — saving a lot of round trips with cumbersome tape.
Not everything was moved over overnight, or even at all.
Grounds said that the systems managing local access control, for example, couldn't afford to go down even if one of their four different locations lost connectivity or their host was somehow compromised.
It pays to be cautious when handling other people's precious metals. But overall, trusting a dedicated cloud provider with a big reputation eased even external concerns, he said. The knowledge that Microsoft’s security teams were regularly probing and testing their IT defenses was very reassuring for Grounds and his colleagues.
"When I came in, we had to do an IT audit for our financial firm, to check on everyone who was touching the numbers," Grounds recalled. "Going through that audit, I had to make the case to go to Azure. When we went through it, they didn't think twice about it."
Some systems that had special compliance needs stayed local, but whenever possible, infrastructure was moved up to the cloud to help free up staff resources.
More than any technical process, it was the staff that became one of the biggest challenges Grounds faced. "It's an interesting emotional journey for the team," he said.
Employees used to focusing on infrastructure and application maintenance suddenly saw work being outsourced to a cloud provider, and naturally worried that the moves were ultimately about cutting costs.
"It was a unique situation coming into this environment. IT in this company had been an afterthought, IT had been the janitor: They just put a computer on my desk and it worked," he said. "As a company, we decided to start doing a whole lot of technical, strategic platforms, and that started putting a strain on my team, which didn't have enough people to support the infrastructure we had."
So rather than hiring new employees, cutting down on maintenance like patching or configuring virtual machines allowed current staff to focus on much-needed expansion projects,
"When you see something being replaced, you wonder, 'Am I being replaced?'" he said. "We turned it around by saying this is a learning opportunity, you get to sharpen up new skills, you get to learn new skills."
That can be a double-edged sword, he noted, because in Azure, things change so much and things you learned yesterday don't necessarily apply today, so training and education needs to be baked into every job description.
For staff, that means the benefit of being able to advance their own career in new and fulfilling ways.
"Just from a management philosophy, one of the things I try to do is build a team that is continually learning, applying new skills, and while there is a risk there that if they become too relevant they'll go somewhere else, it also creates a place that they want to work in," said Grounds.
The move to a hybrid cloud/on-premise environment has also set up Dillon Gage for international expansion, allowing them to quickly ramp up new data centers and IT initiatives around the world, and letting their cloud providers handle much of the challenges in dealing with local regulation.
That means as his company eyes opportunities in Asia and around the rest of the globe, Grounds is confident his team can deliver.
This content is underwritten by Microsoft and is editorially independent.