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This is a guest blog post by our visiting expert Dieter Matzion. Dieter is a Business Systems Analyst at Intuit. In the post, Dieter explains how his team has built a KPI dashboard to track cloud spend on top of Amazon Redshift. With the dashboard, over 5,000 Intuit employees gain self-service visibility into their utilization of cloud resources. You can follow & connect with Dieter on Linkedin.

The cloud computing market is forecasted by Forbes and Gartner to grow about 17% in 2020, to an aggregated annual revenue of over a quarter trillion dollars. Almost 70% of enterprises are moving business-critical applications to the cloud says Tech Republic. Companies using the cloud can focus on their core business vs. the undifferentiated heavy lifting as Jeff Bezos calls it.

Cloud has become a competitive advantage that drives innovation with unprecedented speed. Economies of scale allow Intuit to run a 100,000 core data analysis job at any time we choose by simply writing a check. Elasticity allows builders to scale vertically and horizontally at the click of a mouse button. The global presence of the cloud allows enterprises to provide services close to their customers. And shifting from a data center to the cloud allows CFOs to move capital expenditures to operational ones. You can read our cloud migration story in “Intuit’s Journey to Cloud Analytics“.

A New Procurement Model for the Cloud

However, the cloud is very different from a data center as is evident by the many authors talking about its disadvantages. The procurement model for the cloud is comparable to a cell phone bill that you are expected to pay in full at the end of the month.

Cloud governance is often de-prioritized due to the complexity and favoring innovation, opening the door for runaway spending. Renting managed services has a higher cost compared to bare metal machines in the data center. Cost items like data transfer and storage covered by someone else in the data center now show up on your business unit’s monthly bill. Prepaid services need to be amortized, and your organization may have different financial reporting needs than provided out-of-the-box.

Lifting and shifting from the data center to the cloud inherits all inefficiencies and right-sizing is new skill engineers need to learn. Enterprises relinquish central control of security, privacy, and compliance by assuming a shared responsibility model with the cloud provider.

But all is not doom and gloom, and ignoring the cloud gives an advantage to your competitors who are willing to master the new environment. In this article, I am going to share best practices and learnings of how large enterprises overcome these obstacles.

Intuit’s Billing Data Warehouse on Amazon Redshift

Let’s start with visibility. Managing cost in a data center is slow-paced. Procurement of hardware, racking, and installing software takes months. Budgets are stable and forecasted years in advance. Using the same method in the cloud is like driving a car at top speed – blindfolded – and expecting not to crash.

Solving the issue of visibility

Unpredictable cost is the top pain point with lack of visibility a close second of 300 C-level and IT decision-makers surveyed by SoftwareONE in 2018.

Fortunately, major cloud providers provide detailed records of how you spent your money. Unfortunately, this insight may come too late, requires training before it becomes usable, and may not align with the financial reporting requirements of your organization.

AWS Bill Visualization Service Diagram
Intuit’s Billing Data Warehouse on Redshift

Challenges with Processing Large Volumes of Billing Data

At Intuit we process 4 billion rows of AWS billing data (the “AWS Cost and Usage Report”) every day into Amazon Redshift, which feeds financial reports tailored to different audiences. We layer in amortization of prepaid services and chargebacks to obtain financial numbers that are directly compared to cloud budgets. You can read about the detailed data architecture and processes in the post “Intuit’s to Cloud Analytics“.

Latencies of billing data are filled with data from inventory changes to get near-real-time cost estimates. This allows us to alert business owners of budget risks before runaway spend occurs.

Intuit's budget vs actuals dashboard
Intuit’s budget vs actuals dashboard

Optimizing Billing Data for Actionable Insights

The billing data is further enhanced with performance and efficiency telemetry like compute, storage, database, container, and serverless utilization data. This allows us to surface actionable insights for right-sizing and cost avoidance to executives and engineers alike. Our CTO and CFO review the top opportunities from the largest vertical down to a single engineer on a quarterly basis. This executive commitment cascades down the organization and is key to efficient operation in the cloud.

Surface actionable insights for right-sizing and cost avoidance to executives and engineers.

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Intuit's cloud efficiency scorecard
Intuit’s cloud efficiency scorecard

Cost Saving & Avoidance Methods

The lowest hanging fruit for saving or avoiding the cost in the cloud are discounts. This is because a small team can implement these without having to engage a large number of engineers. Enterprise discount agreements typically give you a flat percentage rate depending on a specific commitment. These will vary for each customer as they are based on the volume of cloud services consumed.

Additionally, most cloud providers offer so-called sustained usage discounts, a percentage discount for a specific service in exchange for a longer-term commitment. Intuit actively manages a $100M portfolio of AWS Reserved Instances. These are prepaid leases for EC2, RDS, Redshift, Elasticache, ElasticSearch, and DynamoDB. Discounts can range up to 70% depending on the type of commitment. The portfolio is managed centrally using 3rd party tools like CloudHealth. Unit pricing is calculated hourly and exposed via an API. This allows automated cost decisions where software chooses most economic deployment patterns.

Intuit automatically setting a Spot bid ceiling on Kubernetes
Intuit automatically setting a Spot bid ceiling on Kubernetes

The Importance and Impact of Cloud Governance

Cloud governance has a heavier lift compared to the previous areas as policies will affect how engineers can use the cloud. You want to establish guardrails instead of gatekeepers to promote the speed of innovation. Each policy is customized based on its purpose and maintained as code to allow real-time enforcement. Management and engineers need to be aware of the policies to innovate efficiently.

Intuit uses a customized fork of Capital One’s Cloud Custodian for automated policy enforcement. We maintain several hundred policies in an internal Github, 40 of them are focused on cloud cost. Here are a few examples of policies that will result in the most savings for the least effort.

Harnessing the Full Value from the Cloud

Take advantage of the cloud’s elasticity by stopping to incur cost when turning off resources that are not in use. So-called cloud parking is automation that is executed to decommission and reprovision cloud resources on a schedule. Development or testing environments that no one is using after business hours are good candidates. Assuming a 12 hour on time on weekdays, this will save over 60% where the policy can be enabled.

Setup red versus green policies to restrict certain usages to maximize discounts. For example, if your company is only purchasing Reserved Instances in 2-3 regions, you can opt to terminate new workload in all other regions to avoid paying an undiscounted price. Other examples are to disallow expensive services or services for which you don’t have discounts. You want to automate exceptions, where business owners can override the policy at any time, and get a report of how this affected their budget.

Cloud providers generally have some data lifecycle management capabilities, and you may need to supplement these. A good example is unattached Elastic Block Store (EBS) on AWS. EBS is a like virtual disk drive, you can think of it as a thumb drive. When it is not connected to a computer, it still incurs a cost, as the storage cannot be reused. Intuit uses policy automation to backup unattached EBS and deletes the backups after a month if no one claims them. Engineers with a valid business reason can tag unattached EBS volumes, which the policy then ignores.

Intuit's EBS Lifecycle Management
Intuit’s EBS lifecycle management

We’d love to learn from you! Is there anything you can share about your own experience building in the cloud? We are always excited to share transformational use cases of Amazon Redshift. And if you want faster queries for your cloud analytics, and spend less time on Ops and more time on Dev like Intuit, then go ahead and schedule a demo or start a trial with