by Peter Sayer

Uniper CIO seizes on company split to move to cloud

Jan 09, 2020
Cloud ComputingDigital TransformationIT Leadership

When power company E.ON spun off its gas business as a new company, Uniperu2019s CIO started modernizing.

Credit: Uniper SE

Splitting a business — and its IT systems — in two is a challenge, but one that Damian Bunyan says he is lucky to have, as it makes it easier to argue the case for modernization.

He had been working as chief process officer for German power utility E.ON when it decided to reinvent itself as a renewable energy company specializing in smart grids. E.ON spun off its legacy activities in natural gas storage, trading and electricity generation as a new company, Uniper, of which he became CIO.

As such, Bunyan is responsible for delivering the IT systems used to monitor and maintain power plants, bill gas customers and support trading activities.

During discussions around the creation of the company, someone asked him how he thought the CIO role should be shaped. “I hadn’t realized it was an interview question,” he says so gave “a flippant answer”: In addition to IT, make the CIO responsible for part of the business so that they suffer like everybody else, but can also exploit the up-sides.

So now he’s also responsible for the enterprise reporting function, the billing function, and the back office for Uniper’s $100-billion-a-year energy trading activity.

“When I go running at the weekend, I’m thinking up use cases that I can deploy instead of being a CIO who has to sell his services to people and say, ‘Look, I’ve got this data lake, isn’t it brilliant?’” That way, he says, if he has some technology that his internal customers don’t want straight away then he can just push himself to the front of the queue.

That’s allowed him to go beyond monitoring server availability and help desk tickets — “that’s just hygiene,” he says — and add things like the cost of working capital to his KPIs.

“In a management meeting we were talking about how we were carrying a lot of working capital because either we hadn’t invoiced our customers quickly enough or they might not have paid an invoice,” he says, when it occurred to him, “I can help with that.”

Pick a cloud

When Uniper started life, its key enterprise applications were hosted in the ten-year-old data center of its former owner, now competitor.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to get out,’” says Bunyan. The question was, where to?

“When you move out of a 10-year-old-data center you don’t go looking for another 10-year-old-data center to slot things back into. What you do is you say, ‘Let’s go into the cloud,’” he says.

He could have spent a lot of time benchmarking different platforms against one another for each of the applications, but instead decided to pick a cloud, any cloud, to host everything.

The one he picked was Microsoft’s Azure, not because it was technically better but because he already knew someone there and was looking for a vendor that would become a long-term partner.

The major cloud platforms aren’t all identical, he acknowledges.

“Maybe AWS has some functionality where they are market-leading and I’m stopping my team from having access to this bit of market leading technology,” he says, but most of the benefit of moving to the cloud comes from things like replacing siloed spreadsheets with cloud-based analytics tools and an enterprise data lake, not from any particular technology.

That goes for more specialized applications too. Uniper, like a lot of Germany companies, runs on SAP: Finance, HR, even maintenance planning for its power plants.

“We could have moved all our SAP applications into the SAP cloud,” he says. “But why would I do that if my data lake is on Azure?”

By mid-2019, Uniper had over 130 sources feeding its data lake, including its own SAP system, the risk management tool Endur, commodity data from Morningstar and other commercial feeds, together generating hundreds of gigabytes per day.

Focusing on a single cloud provider has paid off for Bunyan: “Microsoft treat me, as a CIO, in a much more helpful way than they did when I was running infrastructure for E.ON and was four or five times the size that I am today.”

Looking back on the move to the cloud, he says, “The benefits far outweighed what I thought they would, but it was difficult to describe.”

One hidden benefit for Uniper of leaving E.ON’s data center was the need to take stock of all the applications it was running there. Informed of the cost of migrating them, in around a third of cases the users told Bunyan, “It’s not that important. Turn it off.”

The desktop stack

Migrating away from E.ON’s desktop was also high on the to-do list, allowing Uniper to move to Windows 10 and access collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams.

Bunyan recalls one particular desktop setup that he encountered in his early days as CIO, touring the company to ask his internal customers what they wanted from him.

The chief engineer at a power plant in the Southeast of England had three PCs stacked on his desk, the CPUs one on top of the other, connected to a single screen and keyboard. That was his way of getting the necessary computing power to analyze data from the local power grid overnight, in time to produce a report for the morning meeting.

By the time of Bunyan’s next visit those PCs had been replaced by a single Windows 10 device displaying what power plants across the U.K. were up to, in real time, using data made publicly available as part of the U.K.’s electricity trading market.

“The information was coming from three sources on the internet via Talend,” a cloud data integration tool, he says. “Then we’d use Tableau at the end to produce a visualization of all of this data.”

With their improved visibility into the electricity market’s behavior, the plant managers were able to make an extra million pounds within a couple of weeks simply by changing the way they bid their generating capacity.

Incidents like that contribute to Bunyan’s relaxed attitude to choosing a cloud provider. “The amount of up-side in that one use-case far outweighs what would happen if my data lake became 5 percent more expensive,” he says.

Other opportunities could present even bigger up-sides.

Uniper’s energy trading arm already stores data about the deals it does, but it’s now feasible, he says, to store and analyze information about the deals it proposes that aren’t accepted: a volume ten times greater, but that could hold the key to improved profit.

Power plants, like cars, need maintenance — but, he says, “If I take a power station to the garage for a service, it’s hugely expensive.” Delaying that service until the next financial year can bring a smile to the CFO’s face “but you need to have a level of certainty that you’re not going to break down while you do that,” he warns.

Sifting through sensor data from the power plants to perform predictive maintenance is a possibility. A modern plant will have thousands of sensors reporting in real-time, but it’s not easy to retrofit older ones built without that technology, he says: “People think they can go to Amazon and for $35 buy something that’s got geolocation, heat sensing, et cetera. But when you’re running a power station that heats up to 800 degrees and has five meters of concrete walls, getting the data becomes quite a challenge.”

Bunyan says he is a lucky CIO, but he has clearly made the most of the opportunity presented by Uniper’s separation from E.ON. Other CIOs will have to make their own luck, seizing opportunities to transform or renew infrastructure, or to hitch their fortunes more closely to those of the business as a whole.