A race against time is ‘helping’ Microsoft transform how it processes financial transactions

Apr 16, 2018   |  

Robert Venable is in a race against time.

Later this year, the Microsoft Engineering Team that supports finance will run out of processing capacity to report the transactions the company uses to sell its services (think subscriptions to Windows and Office 365, Skype minutes, etc.) to its many corporate customers within normal timeframes.

Venable, a principal architect in Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO), is leading the effort to get a fix in place before the clock runs out later this year.

Why is this happening?

Blame Moore’s Law.

It used to be that Microsoft would sell Office and other software to customers and partners every three or so years. These transactions would flow into internal systems at Microsoft for various reporting and analytical needs. As a result, these systems were originally built and architected to handle low data volume and latency needs.

Flash forward to today, and the world of one transaction every few years has been obliterated. Now those customers subscribe to Office on a monthly basis and are charged for their Azure and Skype usage per event. This means that these transactions have grown at a tremendous rate and volume, and that means more transactions for the financial reporting team—lots more. To further complicate matters, new financial regulations and rules increase the compute power needed to process these additional transactions because new rules and attributes are required. So, faster data, more transactions, and more compute are all needed for internal Microsoft systems just to keep afloat.

In truth, the older systems Microsoft uses to process transactions are getting more powerful all the time—their capacity doubles every two years based on Moore’s Law, which states that improvements in technology typically result in processing power doubling every two years. It’s just that the rate and number of transactions that Microsoft must process in this new cloud, services-based world is growing much faster than that.

“The company’s current revenue reporting systems ability to respond is tied to Moore’s Law scale,” Venable says. “The data and compute power that is needed is growing faster than Moore’s Law can handle.”

The team projects that the company’s ability to process all the transactions coming in the door for financial reporting will reach a breaking point in less than a year, potentially reducing the company’s ability to meet its internal reporting demands. This would impact internal business capabilities within Microsoft by breaking long standing Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) in 2019.

The upcoming deadline is helping Venable push for a solution, one born in the cloud that will flex to handle the number of transactions no matter how fast or how many occur.

“This is an opportunity to build new internal tools that are capable of processing revenue transactions in the cloud,” he says. “We need to ensure elasticity for today and tomorrow and provide additional capabilities that just were not available 20 years ago.”

MS Sales is the global revenue reporting platform for Microsoft. MS Sales conforms, aggregates and enriches the company’s revenue transactions and ensures that revenue reporting and analysis can be performed in a timely, accurate and consistent manner for the corporation, Venable says. These reporting and analysis activities are crucial in assessing and maintaining Microsoft’s top-line performance and competitive position.

These systems are also 20 years old.

Building a solution to replace the older tools is challenging because of their age, but also because Microsoft needs to be able to continue to process these transactions for reporting while the new solution is built.

“It’s like rebuilding an airplane engine while you’re flying,” Venable says. “That takes longer and has little tolerance for error.”

Venable is using this as an opportunity to encourage everyone involved—including the Microsoft Finance department, his internal customer—to rethink the way they work, to digitally transform themselves.

“We can’t do this if we don’t change our culture,” he says. “We have to change the way we think, the way we work, the way we interact with our customers—we have to rethink everything.”

In this case, transforming means moving the company’s revenue reporting system to Microsoft Azure, creating a new capability that Venable projects will be ready just about the same time the legacy transaction system runs hits the wall.

There can be no delays, there can be no hiccups, and people who have been doing it the same old way for 20 years (including internal Microsoft partners) will need to nimbly adjust on the fly. “I know we have a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we are,” Venable says.

The team has an early version of its new solution, which is being tested by two smaller teams within the Finance team, and signs are positive so far.

“If that goes well, we are on track to get a new solution in place before we hit our deadline,” Venable says.

Go deeper on the work Venable and his team are doing to help the company’s financial tracking and billing keep up with fast increasing number of transactions that are occurring as Microsoft continues its shift to a services company. Check out the video.  

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