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Blue-sky thinking: how Sky is reimagining their FinOps journey

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Google Cloud’s partnership with Sky Group, one of Europe’s largest media and entertainment companies, dates back more than four years to when Sky first became a Google Cloud customer moving diagnostic data from millions of its Sky Q TV boxes to its Google Cloud data platform.

In June 2019, a few years into their cloud adoption journey, Sky was faced with a challenge they had anticipated from the start. Their recent bill across all major cloud providers had been increasing rapidly, reaching their planned yearly budget after only six months. Sky wasn’t sure if they’d undershot their forecasts, if they were overspending, or both. 

“In the beginning, we were given a brief to investigate internal cloud spend with the aim of finding out where we could make savings, but in reality we didn’t know what we would expect to find,” said Nathan King, a cloud architect in the Cloud Enablement Center and now Head of Cloud Financial Management (FinOps) at Sky since the start of 2020. 

Nathan assembled a small team who started to explore Google Cloud spend using the Cloud Billing tool. At first, they drilled into their biggest Google Cloud cost categories and discovered some immediate cost optimizations with BigQuery, Compute Engine and Cloud Storage. Over the course of the next six months, through careful analysis, they managed to find over $1.5m in immediate savings, exceeding expectations. 

Yet they soon realized this was just the tip of the iceberg—it was clear there were millions of pounds more savings to be made, but actually achieving them at scale would require careful planning. “We formed a FinOps function to target these savings, but with 600 to 700 projects for Google Cloud alone, spanning four Google Cloud organizations, it would have been a manual process and difficult for teams to digest our recommendations,” Nathan said.

After attending a Google-led FinOps workshop and shaping their FinOps strategy, Nathan’s team focused on iterating through the FinOps lifecycle phases of Inform, Optimize, Operate and generating savings over time. Here’s how they did it:

1. Inform: Make Information Visible

The first step was focused on developing a clear vision for cost allocation and recharge, which required partnering closely with the finance, procurement and tax teams (particularly for international and affiliates) to understand the supporting business logic and processes. With a lot of hard work, the team managed to break down barriers to implement and embed new processes into broader business functions like finance. 

WIth the recharge model in place, the team ran a number of pilots to find the right FinOps tooling to meet their needs. They ran a number of pilots, including using Data Studio and visualizing BigQuery exports. Given their ambitions to scale across the enterprise globally, the team chose Google Cloud’s Looker to realize their vision, building intuitive dashboards to visualize spend and recommendations across all cloud providers. “We wanted one view across all clouds, where customers can dynamically see cloud spend and intelligent optimization recommendations in just one place,” Nathan said.

After less than three weeks of development, the Looker dashboards were ready to go and have been a game changer ever since. “The moment our leadership and different departments started seeing the Looker dashboards, the value we were adding as a FinOps team became immediately clear,” Nathan said.

There are different report pages for each stakeholder group, each custom developed and automated using Looker and BigQuery. The BigQuery Optimization page, for example, provides insights on Slots consumed across the organization, down to granular query data like the cost of each query, how it was written, who submitted it and number of slots utilized. The dashboards also highlight potential areas of optimization, like BigQuery datasets without retention policies set or where data isn’t partitioned. 

A recent breakthrough has been building pages for business teams, showing the related cloud spend contributing to a business unit of value, such as the cost per live stream or per subscriber in Sky’s case. Although this is an inherently difficult metric to capture, the opportunity has been made possible with the FinOps team’s progress and is starting to drive business investment decisions. 

2. Optimize: Drive Cloud Efficiency

The second stage of the FinOps lifecycle focuses on delivering optimizations. As Sky’s FinOps dashboards were operationalized and highlighted savings opportunities, they enabled users to generate more than $3 million in Google Cloud savings alone in 2020 and over $800,000 in other cloud providers. 

The team began with focusing on the top four products by spend: BigQuery, Compute Engine, Cloud Dataflow and Cloud Storage. Working with their Google account team and studying Google whitepapers and blog posts like Cloud cost optimization: principles for lasting success, they developed their own best practice guidance and embedded recommendations into the dashboards. 

Creating their own recommenders and leveraging Google Cloud’s recommenders, the team discovered a plethora of cost optimization opportunities. “Key examples were overly expensive queries, storage buckets set without retention policies, and VMs without autoscaling enabled,” Nathan said. Teams were then empowered to make their own savings, like the NowTV business unit that had been forecast to overspend for the year until they received their dashboard with thousands of optimization recommendations. After just three weeks, the team had implemented more than 90% of recommendations and brought their spend under budget for the year, saving more than 50%. 

The FinOps team still searches for new recommendations every day and have been collaborating with Google product managers to take their insights to the next level. “We’ve loved partnering with Google product managers, who encourage us to give feedback on new features before they go to market. We’ve also shared some of our in-house recommenders to influence the features being developed by Google, including the Idle VM and Idle Persistent Disk Recommenders as part of Active Assist,” Nathan said.

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3. Operate: Embed FinOps & Drive Self-Sufficiency 

Now that teams could visualize their cloud spend and make real-time decisions based on cost optimization recommendations, the FinOps team has begun working on embedding processes, leveraging machine learning, and improving efficiency in their own ways of working.

Looker’s extensive capabilities continue to play a role in this. “Before we started using Looker, our most popular report was an electricity bill showing customers’ detailed monthly cloud spend, previous month comparisons and forecasts for months ahead,” Nathan said. “This report took days, sometimes weeks to run. With Looker, we’ve automated the entire process and brought that time down to just minutes.” 

More teams are embedding the dashboards into their own processes, like finance, which now uses the interactive dashboards in meetings instead of static report snapshots, or in-house Google Cloud architects, who use the recommendations to optimize their cloud spend before deploying any technology. 

As the FinOps team continues to operate like a product function, designing with CX/UX in mind and iteratively releasing new features like anomaly reporting, budget alerts, and forecasting based on machine learning, it’s becoming clear that Cloud Financial Management is a key capability and mindset that can impact wide-reaching parts of the business at scale.

Elevating Sky’s FinOps journey to the next level

Indeed, as more business teams collaborate with the FinOps function, the opportunities are growing. “The FinOps team has changed the way we view and manage cloud spend, enabling us to partner with finance and show digestible reports to the CFO. We’re now looking further to broaden our range of insights, like elevating our dashboards to understand how using Google Cloud is supporting Sky’s Net carbon zero ambitions by incorporating Google’s data center sustainability metrics,” says Vince Marco, Architecture Manager at Sky.

So, after being unsure of drivers for their increasing cloud spend in 2019, 18 months later Sky is far more confident about its investment decisions. The team knows that every dollar spent is being used optimally and driving maximum value for its investment. 

If you’re an enterprise using cloud, but want to better manage cloud costs, consider setting up a FinOps capability and creating a FinOps mindset. Looker can help you get started by providing reporting and insights into cloud expenditures to identify initial savings. As you learn more and scale, empower teams to make their own savings utilizing built-in actionality for monitoring and customizing for business billing activity nuances and department-specific chargebacks. Reimagine how cloud finances can be managed and optimized as Sky is doing.

To learn more about Looker’s Cloud Cost Management Block visit Looker Marketplace.