5 minutes with: David Walker, Field CTO, EMEA at Yugabyte

David Walker, Field CTO for EMEA at Yugabyte, speaks to Data Centre Magazine about his career and the importance of cloud-native database modernisation

Yugabyte is a scalable PostgreSQL-compatible database company, with YugabyteDB operating as a 100% open source cloud native database for mission critical applications. It runs in any public or hybrid cloud environment.

Data Centre Magazine speaks with David Walker, Field CTO in EMEA at Yugabyte about some key pillars for enterprise success and avoiding cloud concentration risk. He discusses his career achievements and challenges, as well as his work at Yugabyte fostering a culture of database modernisation readiness. He emphasises a need for data modernisation within the data centre industry and the benefits that it can bring to businesses.

Please introduce yourself and your role.

I’m the Field Chief Technology Officer (CTO), EMEA for Yugabyte, the leading scalable PostgreSQL-compatible database company. 

I’m responsible for leading the technical customer engagement strategy across the region. Drawing on over 35 years of experience (both as a CIO within end-user enterprises and on the vendor side), I help organisations modernise and exploit their underlying data architecture across various industry sectors, including financial services, fintech, retail, e-commerce, telco, manufacturing, and transportation. 

At Yugabyte, we have two types of CTO. We have the founder, Karthik Ranganathan, the company CTO, who came up with many of the original ideas for the product based on his time at Facebook. He continues to lead the evolution of YugabyteDB. 

Myself and a colleague in APAC are Field CTOs, and we help customers understand, deploy and operate the technology that Yugabyte provides. As Field CTOs, we lead regional technical teams, both pre- and post-sales, and assist with tricky support issues. Essentially, I’m here to help clients deliver Yugabyte’s solutions to their organisations.

What is Yugabyte, and what does it do?

Yugabyte is a scalable, PostgreSQL-compatible database company headquartered in the US. We also have a London EMEA HQ and offices in India and APJ. 

We offer an open-source database that takes the PostgreSQL query language and makes it scale as a cloud-native solution, often in multi-cloud deployments. We provide enterprises with a modern cloud-native database, with transactionally consistent data layer capabilities that NoSQL data products can’t offer. 

So, if you’re a CIO building new modern applications as microservices and need a scalable transactional database, we’re the answer! A growing number of global and European financial institutions, supermarket retailers, and IoT users agree.

What has been your greatest achievement so far in your career? And your greatest challenge?

My greatest achievements and my greatest challenges come together - overcoming a challenge is always an achievement. This usually means bringing product, people, and process into alignment to deliver a solution.

At Worldpay, who had recently split from RBS/NatWest when I joined, there was a need to re-think all the existing systems as the business wanted to rapidly modernise and move away from the legacy systems. 

The challenges there were interesting. In many ways we were the best funded start-up ever, but we also faced all the usual challenges of legacy systems. We had good people, but always struggled to find more fast enough. In some areas we were inventing processes as we went, whilst always having to work inside a highly regulated environment. We also had Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) to consider. Building and operating the Enterprise Data Platforms was always stressful and difficult, but also fulfilling and rewarding.

I’m lucky enough to be able to look back on other successes. I went to New York shortly after 9/11 to help a VC-backed complex event processing software company, which was eventually sold to Sybase/SAP. Operating in New York in 2001/2 and bringing engineers together to deliver a product used for things like Liquidity Management in banks was challenging, but we got there and the team are still close friends today. Whenever I return to the city we all meet for breakfast in the same diner we frequented all those years ago!

I also had a long-term role with the Dutch National Police for an analytics platform. Balancing the governance aspects required by the Dutch Police Law that protects citizens’ rights, with the capabilities of the technology taught me a lot - most of which I can’t share!

My career can be summed up as finding ways to put complex systems into organisations in such a way that they add value. This always involves challenges with product, people, and processes. And you don’t succeed every time - but when you do you chalk up another achievement (and a sigh of relief!)

How can businesses foster a culture of database modernisation readiness? 

To some extent we already have started the process. We have already modernised both the infrastructure and the application. What we haven’t done is explain the need for the same process to happen in the data layer and what is required by the teams responsible.

In practice this means more education. What do cloud-native databases look like? What should you consider when using a distributed database? How does it differ from a monolithic database?  Why is the PostgreSQL API so important and how do you get there? Migration is also always a challenge when updating the data layer.   

Once people understand where they are going then they can focus on the process for getting there: change management, security, compliance, etc. They can also decide which databases should be retired, migrated, or allowed to wither on the vine. 

One organisation we work with has over 1,000 monolithic database instances (predominantly Oracle and SQL Server). We are not just providing them with technology, but enabling them squad by squad to move over completely by 2033. Here we are talking about a large corporation, but most people’s journey won’t be so huge. However, the process is the same and the knowledge we have gained helping our customers migrate allows us to inform others how they can succeed too.

What are the key pillars for enterprise success when it comes to database modernisation strategies?

The first thing the organisation needs to do is grasp what moving to a cloud-native data layer actually means. What stays the same and what needs to change? They need to understand how they can get there - the migration strategy, the impact, how it will affect developers, SREs, security, compliance, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand the benefits and be able to articulate them to the wider business.

The next element is enablement. This is not a one-off event, we need to ‘teach people to fish’ and become self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and confident. Enablement should address the diverse concerns of the business stakeholders including security, compliance, risk, finance, etc.

Finally, plan. These are programs of work over time - the journey will have challenges and you need to be adaptable to truly succeed.

From a business standpoint, why is it so important for enterprises to be aware of cloud concentration risk and vendor lock-in? 

Commentators like Ofcom and Gartner, as well as financial regulators, see the danger in putting all your eggs in one basket. From a business pragmatism point of view, you should be considering how you can spread your risk. There are also technical reasons why you shouldn’t over-commit now to choices that may well limit you later. 

A big factor here is choosing a database that’s going to grow with you. The hyperscalers tend to offer small, medium, and large databases, all of which have their good points, but which can have different APIs. 

So, you may find your business users love a cloud service, but you put it on a limited engine. This means you have to backtrack and do a lot of work porting it back out to a more scalable data engine, or to a different cloud provider. 

Having to do a migration, even though you've gone to a cloud native database, is not a great outcome. Best practice confirms that it’s best to avoid all this technical debt!

What can businesses do to ensure that their database migration project is strategic and valuable to the business?  

Start by taking the longer view. Planning out a database migration means understanding where you're going to put the data. This might mean how you're going to convert a legacy Oracle database into, say, scalable PostgreSQL. 

You need to really understand the characteristics of databases. This includes which databases have higher throughput but slightly higher latency, and if that will affect your customers’ experience. 

You also need to do a lot of scoping out, planning, and experimentation, to get the right components for your new data layer. I’d recommend partnering with someone who can help you understand this and advise on what doing business in the cloud really means, and the value it can provide.

What does the future of database modernisation look like for you, Yugabyte, and the wider industry?  

I think data modernisation is going to be something people will just have to address—for commercial, environmental, cost, and technical reasons. 

It really is worth biting the bullet as soon as possible, as doing so will give the CIO the opportunity to reap the benefits now and avoid sinking money into legacy solutions. It also gives them the opportunity to grow their business in a more agile and dynamic way, because they have a flexible, scalable data layer.

On a final note, I would caution that if you leave it too long, you may be saddled with considerable costs and complexity, as well as being left behind by competitors who have already begun to modernise. So, what are you waiting for?


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