I got to catch up with Nic Fletcher, head of global IT at Tobii, during the last European SharePoint Conference. Nic was one of the first people to try ShareGate Overcast, our Azure cost management solution, so I was thrilled to hear about his experience with the tool so far: problems solved, favorite features, and how we could provide even more value in future releases. Give it a listen!
Benjamin Niaulin: Welcome! Thanks for joining us, Nic.
Nic Fletcher: You're welcome.
BN: My name is Benjamin Niaulin and I work at ShareGate in Montreal.
Today we’re having a chat with Nic Fletcher from Tobii about Azure and the pains surrounding cloud spend, understanding consumption, and everything about governance. But first things first—what do you do, and what is Tobii?
NF: I'm head of global IT. Tobii is a relatively young company that’s grown tremendously in the last four or five years. We are the world's leading eye tracker developer.
NF: [We operate] in three different areas, in the consumer mass markets as well as in research and human behavior. We also have a whole business unit devoted to assistive augmentative communication. In other words, we’re giving people a voice—letting them control computers with their eyes.
BN: That's amazing.
NF: It is, actually.
BN: I bet you love going to work every day.
NF: Yeah. That business unit, Tobii Dynavox—those people, they're making a difference.
BN: Just talking about it gives me goosebumps. I love that.
I wanted to understand a little bit better what types of pains you faced when you moved to Azure—not just relative to costs, but in general. What challenges did you face when you got there?
NF: The pain points are caused partly by our own organizational culture. I mentioned three business units. We are a high-tech company. And that means that we will decentralize as much as possible from our IT and applications infrastructure.
BN: I think it's a team effort, this thing.
NF: Yeah, and it's right. I'm not arguing against that, but of course, it creates challenges because now you can have quite large investments sitting in Azure or other cloud services.
NF: All that is actually being run by the business, administered by the business, developed by the business. So you have governance challenges coming from security, data privacy, business continuity and cost.
BN: Can you share any specific examples that you faced when you got into looking at Azure and everything around it? I think we talked a little bit about security and costs earlier, but are there other scenarios that people might encounter in Azure and when they migrate that you could share?
NF: Yeah, I mean, my experience has been that—especially in a decentralized environment—there’s just so much you can do with Azure. And if you’re smart, you can actually do it for a lot cheaper in Azure than you could on-prem.
NF: But it's actually quite complex. You're managing every single resource as a different element. Even deploying a simple web service that will cost us maybe $25 a month involves about 10 different components: you've got $1.98 for the external IP address, you've got $1.50 for something else... So once you're spending over $1 million a year in Azure, the number of resources you're consuming is overwhelming.
BN: Absolutely. They're all over the place; they’re being created by anyone, everywhere.
NF: Yeah, exactly. So I think it’s important to set up the infrastructure as you move into Azure, and not every company has that opportunity—sometimes we're forced into that environment on external events.
One of our big deployments in Azure was an external event that forced us, and we had to move it somewhere. But I mean, ideally, you would have set up governance procedures from the very beginning—you would have set up policies, you would have had proper targeting from get-go, so that when you start to deploy, you've got it all in place. But instead, we deployed everything and then started asking how we could get control of it, both from a security standpoint and in terms of general governance and costs.
BN: We hear that same scenario a lot when we talk to customers. "Oh, let's try it out. Let's put our feet into the water. Let's look into Azure." Then they deploy, and all of a sudden these new needs pop up: "Okay, well, we need tags, we need to make sure we've got our enterprise agreement set up with our business departments..." And so I definitely understand where you're coming from in that sense.
NF: And I think in particular for me—again, this is speaking from personal experience—it made me feel a bit overwhelmed. Looking at the enterprise portal for Azure—at first I thought, "Well, this is great." You know, just put the business units in departments, simple as that. But actually, it's really inflexible. When I got the first invoice I just looked at it like, "What's going on?".
BN: Yeah. I totally understand. And so from there, from all those pains you experienced, whether they’re related to security, to costs, to governance in general—what are some of the solutions that you saw available out of the box? What type of solution were you actually looking for? We talked a bit off-mic about your Power BI, but I'll let you dive into that a little.
NF: I mean, when it comes to out-of-the-box solutions—I mentioned the enterprise portal already—we find that they’re not really that useful. We started looking into the Power BI offering, because that's the route Microsoft has been emphasizing. At first, what we had was a dataset that you could customize—not the data itself, but the reports and the dashboards. But that cost the BI team time and effort that would have been better spent on business reporting, even though this had a relatively significant cost component to it. So it was a real challenge.
And in the end, we’d go to the enterprise portal and just download every single billing meter record, then stick it all into Excel on a power pivot. But that’s something you only do once a month, maybe even once a quarter, when the invoice comes in. So you're not really governing; you’re just reacting to the invoice rather than taking a proactive approach.
BN: Exactly. It’s important to continuously look into what's going on and how you could be getting better visibility over each department’s spending and peaks. You know, at ShareGate, we've even identified leaks and bugs in our code just by analyzing day-to-day consumption, seeing spikes in certain resources, and asking ourselves, "What's going on here?". The opportunity to fix those problems at the source allowed us to provide a better experience to our end users. So it's definitely better, I think, to continuously monitor and stay on top of things.
So what I'm hearing is: you had the EA Portal; you looked at the Power BI solutions; then you looked at exporting the raw data to make sense of it all. But that became more of a time constraint.
NF: It was a chore.
BN: So that’s when you became a ShareGate Overcast customer—and thanks again, we're super proud to have you as a customer. We'll talk about what could we do better in a bit, but first, what did you like about ShareGate Overcast that others might relate to, based on the pains that you talked about and the solution you were actually seeking?
NF: Well, I think it's in two stages. We were already ShareGate customers; we used ShareGate [Desktop] for our SharePoint. Then you came to me about an early opportunity to try ShareGate Overcast without the cost. At that point, with the first release, I mean, it was something that did one thing—but it just did it. It provided this near-instant visualization of all your costs and pinpointed potential cost-saving opportunities for you to take a closer look at.
BN: Absolutely. I mean, some customers have asked us in all transparency, well, Microsoft has a cloud that I know that they've acquired, they have Azure Advisor, and often what I see is that the level of recommendations is just not at all the same. We've had zero recommendations from Microsoft and then find 13 because we really went into the depth of what that recommendation is, what it means, how you can do it.
NF: And I mean, ease of use. We did the demo, over Skype for Business, from Montreal to Sweden. But I logged in to our tenancy, to our Azure environment, and we looked at my data. It took like five minutes to set up, and then I was just looking at data summarized in a more meaningful way than I had ever seen. And the fact that it was so instant.
BN: Definitely—you don't want to wait 24 hours to get a report back, especially when we're talking about continuous monitoring.
NF: And actually, the other product, [Microsoft’s Cost management portal, formerly Cloudyn]—I mean, we tried using that as well, I forgot about that. But again, it's about usability—that’s something that’s part of the culture in my organization because, I mean, we develop software; UX is part of our life, even on more on the corporate side. I mean, for me, I get very frustrated when it becomes difficult to use and difficult to set up.
It’s almost like you’ve taken an Apple-style approach; [I’m reminded of the reasons] I switched from Windows to Mac about 10 years ago. There's that sense of, yes, you can give me a thousand options and I could customize this exactly how I want it and spend 6, 8, 10, 20 hours setting it all up. Or, you can give me the basics of what I need, preconfigured out of the box. And like I said on that demo, we did the demo with my data.
BN: Yeah, that's amazing.
NF: So I mean, in 5 or 10 minutes.
BN: Great. I really appreciate it. I'm happy that you liked ShareGate Overcast and that you got value out of it.
What could we do better? Where could we go from here that could help you even more, what are we not doing well that we could improve?
NF: I think there are two areas. The first one you've already started addressing in the time we've been using Overcast—we were very early, I think we were the second people to buy it or something, probably 9, 12 months ago.
NF: [The tool] should focus not just on cost-saving opportunities or visibility of our resources or what we're using, but also on helping with the whole internal chargeback billing process. And some of those things you have implemented. We talked about it. And we can now do selections of dates that will match precisely our quarterly invoice. And that's a great start. It'd be really cool if you knew my invoice date and would just give me my invoice.
So the tool helps us govern, understand our resource consumption and identify opportunities for savings. But a lot of us are also using it to actually manage the financial side of our consumption, as well as the other areas of governance. So we have the financial side.
And then the other area is around the in-app suggestions, because I think there is a big difference between potential savings [and sure-thing savings].
And by the way, another great thing about about Overcast is that it's a cost per tenancy, so I can give it to a person who's actually administering a resource group or a whole subscription and they can make use of it.
BN: I think that really is important. In a decentralized world, you have to bring back that visibility to the people who own it and make them a little bit more accountable—in a good way—to help them understand what's going on and the impact that it has on their environment.
NF: The danger is, you can come up and say to someone, "Okay, you've got an opportunity to save $5,000 here, $10,000 dollars there." But then, when you drill down, you find out that yes, it’s indeed a seldom-used resource, but it’s one that’s going into production and we're building up, especially if it's something we're doing for our customers. So I think separating potential savings from resources that genuinely are not being used would be a nice distinction. As a manager, you can’t go out and say, "I've got this report that says we can save this amount of money" if in reality, when you dig down, you end up not actually being able to save as much as promised.
So for me, although I know that cost saving is a strong seller for Overcast, that's not my primary use for it. It is actually giving me visibility over our consumption, over the resource groups and resources that we have.
And then there’s the speed. I was actually using [ShareGate Overcast] on a mobile phone a while back, and while it's not 100% optimized for mobile, it was good enough. It’s flexible; it gives us the ability to sort the resources according to our needs. We weren’t looking at costs; we were trying to understand what resources a particular project was using. So just the ability to filter, to sort the columns, whether it's by resource group, resource type, by subscription, by owner, I mean...
NF: And it was the speed. And actually, you don't get out of Power Bi, even with the Microsoft standard.
BN: Yeah. I know we've done quite a bit of work there. And I'm glad you're saying this, because as we looked at ShareGate Overcast, and obviously, we have data from customers, we're looking at always improving, done ton of research, and what you're saying resonates, I think, with many customers.
So yes, [ShareGate Overcast] definitely helps reduce costs, but that’s just part of a bigger story in Azure. The goal for the next year is to double down on making sense of your consumption and to give you better visibility according to your corporate structure. What I mean by that is—your project A, your project B: what do they represent in Azure? How do they break down into different environments—dev, QA, production? What individual resources do they use; how are they split, who are their owners?
It’s a matter of understanding the past to forecast the future. We want to enable people to be part of that. As you said, we want users to be able to log into a simple interface and get the information they need to understand their project, and not necessarily be overwhelmed with settings and options.
And then, if there's a potential for cost savings, great. But that's not necessarily going to be the focus. It really is about understanding, charging back, showing back. And yes, there's a component of cost in there, but it’s just one part of a bigger whole.
Nic, thank you so much for the time, being a customer, being there with ShareGate Desktop, being there with ShareGate Overcast. Thanks again for coming. And I'll see you very soon, I hope.
NF: You're welcome. Thanks.
- Understanding resource consumption in Azure is a challenge due to the complex, granular nature of the service
- Out-of-the-box solutions, such as Microsoft's cost management portal, don't provide sufficient detail to be truly valuable
- Custom solutions, such as a Power BI dashboard, are complex and time-consuming to implement and maintain
- ShareGate Overcast is quick and easy to set up and offers an in-depth look at each individual resource's consumption data
- Things to consider for future releases include shifting the tool's focus from cost savings to more general visibility concerns and fine-tuning the in-app suggestions
Have you tried ShareGate Overcast yet? Tell us what type of value it's been bringing to your business—and how we could make the tool even better—in the comments, or give us a shout at @sharegatetools on Twitter.