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Transforming energy at Suncor

Canada's largest integrated energy company is using cloud to reinvent every aspect of its business.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that at my company, Suncor Energy, we are using technology to rethink and reinvent every aspect of our business.

Headquartered in Calgary, the largest city in Canada's beautiful western Prairie Province of Alberta, Suncor is Canada's premier integrated energy company and the fifth largest energy company in North America.

Our energy operations range from traditional fossil fuels to significant investments in wind, biofuels, and other alternative, renewable energy sources. Perhaps most noteworthy is that we feature a unique, highly integrated business model from upstream to downstream and basically everything in between. Not only do we get the oil, gas, and renewables from their sources, but we also operate a network of more than 1,500 retail and wholesale gas outlets through our subsidiary, Petro-Canada. In fact, our presence is so ubiquitous north of the 49th parallel that it has earned our subsidiary the nickname Canada's Gas Station.

We take pride in our leadership in the energy sector. So it is important for us that we remain on the leading edge of technology transformation as well—not from a technology for technology's sake perspective but from a business perspective, to ensure that our technology provides the agility and responsiveness we need to support the speed of business in a digital world.

Our transformation has been—and continues to be—a journey. And, as we've advanced, we've learned some valuable lessons that can be carried forward. Here are a few of them.

People, culture, and leadership

When we first started our cloud transformation, we learned quickly that success requires a different approach than the traditional IT business model.

It was apparent to those of us in the IT domain that investing in public cloud was the right thing to do. But when we started to interact with our business leaders, we found that the biggest pain point the business had was less about the technologies involved and more about how IT operated itself.

They claimed that we moved too slow, that we did not move at the speed of business. So our initial experiments with public cloud drove us to make changes to how we work so that we could build the capabilities that would make IT more agile—and demonstrate the benefits of that new agility to the business.

This kind of change to the way an organization works demands a cultural shift that has to catch up to the technology transformation underway. To execute a change of this magnitude, you need buy-in from all the stakeholders at every level of the organization.

Leadership and communications has proved critical to establishing and maintaining this buy-in. With the benefit of hindsight, we could, as a group, have better explained the changes we were driving toward. As a result, there was some hesitancy across the organization and even a lack of full commitment.

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This was not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the best things a business does are from the grassroots up, and you need some of that friction to finally have the right person in the right position make it known across the organization that this is the direction we're taking. Those opinion leaders have been an amazing source of motivation for the rest of the population.

The key role of governance

Our transformation partners at Hewlett Packard Enterprise helped us establish an interdisciplinary team to help guide and manage our cloud strategy. This cloud governance office brought together stakeholders from every side of the IT organization—security, application, traditional infrastructure, and architecture—as well as business and communications leaders.

I've been a part of past cloud transformations where that governance was more of an afterthought. Within a year, those programs were a mess, with no direction or understanding of what they were doing or why—just out of control. It was such a breath of fresh air that we had that governance piece figured out in advance. As you progress through your journey, things will change. But ultimately, having that governance perspective, that definition, has been a huge part of our progress.

The right mix of application platforms

When we started our cloud journey, we had five data centers and 4,000 servers, all on premises. Now, we have three public clouds, with 18 containerized applications and three data centers.

We've decided that a hybrid approach is right for us, for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it's latency. We're in the middle of the prairie here in Alberta, and there are no public cloud data centers that are sub-80 milliseconds anywhere near us. There are also regulatory issues around where we maintain integrations with the electrical grid.

That said, our on-prem estate needs to be as close as possible to the public cloud in terms of being consumption-based, flexible, and highly automated. So one of our goals is to have a true, next-gen on-prem cloud by the end of the year, which will incorporate nearly all our remaining on-prem systems.

This is where our new muscles in cloud governance and culture will help us. Since cloud-first culture, skills and ways of working are just as, if not more, important than the technology platforms, having that cloud-first approach across our IT operations is really a critical enabler of the success of our on-prem cloud.

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In terms of modernizing the technology, we've done everything from classic "lift and shift" to some more modern re-platforming projects. It's been interesting to see how we can take a modern approach to even some of the older estate, like Unix mainframes and so on.

But that's one of the unexpected benefits of cloud: It reveals opportunities you never thought you had. A perfect illustration of this point is what we discovered when we needed to prepare our environment for the initial public cloud migrations. We hadn't looked at our estate in probably 10 years because we used a managed service provider. Whatever we had was just a black box. So we needed to take a cold, hard look at what we had—those 4,000-plus servers—to gain a real data-driven view of what the right mix of platforms should be for us.

And guess what? When we looked at the first 600, we decommissioned 400 of them because we found they were not being used.

So a huge and unexpected opportunity our cloud journey presented was an understanding of how our estate was being used, what should go to the public cloud, what should stay in our on-prem cloud, and what was just no longer needed—saving us in operating costs, licensing fees, management overhead, and technical debt.

Bringing automation and visibility to operations

Automation is a key goal, and it's a necessity if you want to move at the speed of cloud. Our high-level goal is to have at least 80 percent of all provisioning or requests done by self-service. My team would perhaps audit them, but they will be handled automatically. We realize that, as a large business, we're not going to be able to go beyond around 85 percent self-service because there's just too many complex requirements, integrations, multiple networks, and so on.

We are also well on the way to creating an in-house platform team. Ever since we began our cloud journey, we have been moving away from what was a managed services environment. We are transitioning to an entirely in-house IT organization, and already, it's removing a huge roadblock from our ability to move faster and get things done—the original issues the business side of the house had with our IT organization when our cloud journey first began.

One of the early key benefits we saw in our public cloud migration was that it opened our eyes to the value of visibility and insights. The sheer process of going to the cloud also gives us a "tagging" strategy. We now understand exactly what this business unit is paying or using every month. That understanding is just huge for us and probably our No. 1 gap prior to launching our cloud journey.

Please read: Enterprise security moves to the edge

Now, we want to apply that visibility across our operations so that we can track our assets and know who the owners are and their lifecycle plans. And as a result, we can make better predictions.

Innovation

Ultimately, it comes down to how being people-focused, technology-enabled, and data-informed is transforming our business and our organization. A huge play for us right now is our investment in advanced analytics and IoT.

We currently have use cases in our pipeline areas and our refineries where we can respond very quickly in an automated way through sensor data. We've extended this same IoT initiative all the way downstream to our Petro-Canada retail gas pump sites. On the retail side, it creates the capability to use sensor data to do real Amazon-like stuff, such as micro-target marketing, and other meaningful opportunities for our business revenue and efficiency.

That's a huge benefit, and it's magnified even further by the fact that Suncor now has all this data basically in the same place. We have pipeline sensor data, IT data, finance data, and all sorts of consumer and retail user data. It's all in different types of data lakes and places, but ultimately, it's all in the same usable space, and that opens a host of opportunities for Suncor's businesses. We now have the capability to assemble all this data and, with our growing analytics capabilities, derive new data-informed value from it.

Final thoughts

When we first embarked on our cloud journey, we said we wanted to transform our organization from top to bottom. We made it part of an initiative we called Suncor 4.0. Our goal was to use our cloud journey and digital transformation to become a new and better organization characterized as people-focused, data-informed, and technology-enabled.

As a person who loves to play guitar and considers himself a musician first and an IT professional second, I can confidently say that when it comes to meeting our business goals and our cloud journey, we're right in tune.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.