The Big Interview: SS&C CTO Anthony Caiafa on federated data & building a new cloud
SS&C quietly provides the digital plumbing that underpins the activity of some of the financial markets’ biggest players. That includes automated support of post-trade activities, global regulatory compliance reporting, daily reconciliation of cash and security balances and a host of other software-powered services. The Nasdaq-listed company is the world’s largest fund administrator by assets under administration ($3 trillion+) and handles hundreds of petabytes of data and tens of millions of API calls daily for its 20,000+ global clients.
The man in charge of SS&C’s technology stack is Anthony Caiafa, who started his career as a site reliability engineer before going on to run security architecture and implementation at Bloomberg. Now CTO at SS&C, he leads a global team of over 3,000 engineers at the $20 billion-by-market- cap firm, which has a staff of over 25,000 handling workloads for clients across the financial services and healthcare verticals.
Among his responsibilities is overseeing SS&C’s infrastructure – comprising hundreds of thousands of cores spread out across tens of thousands of servers running in 10+ data centres globally – handles the technology side of M&A integrations for the acquisitive company and runs teams developing new products and services. As a technology company SS&C likes to roll its own stack, somewhat unusually in 2022 saying (per its annual report) that its goal is to “manage the infrastructure end-to-end and to limit third-party reliance outside of our control”. It is also building its own private cloud infrastructure for clients; something to which we will return.
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(Again, per that annual report, SS&C’s elevator pitch boils down to its provision of “software-enabled services [that] provide superior client support and an attractive alternative to clients that do not wish to install, manage and maintain complicated financial software” and as that self-service provision of financial software by banks and funds becomes increasingly onerous and expensive it hopes to bite off increased market share…)
Outside of the immediate markets that it serves SS&C arguably does not have the brand recognition it deserves given its scale and sitting down with The Stack, SS&C’s CTO Anthony Caiafa is quick to paint a picture of the scale at which the company operates.
“We do asset management, portfolio management, risk analytics, we do RPA now that we just purchased Blue Prism.” (A British RPA specialist with over 2,000 customers.) He adds: “We have OCR/ICR products, we have BPO automation products, we have data products; we have everything that you need to run a fund, or run an investment bank.
Internally, when it comes to the technology running this huge range of offerings “we are a very large shop: a big Linux shop; a big Microsoft shop; if you like to play with any kind of technology, we probably have it.”
Among his team’s recent projects was the re-architecting of SS&C GoCentral. That’s the firm’s unified platform for customers to access the information and systems needed to manage investment funds. It now bakes in AI and Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) to optimise front, middle and back-office services: “The amount of data fed through it is just astronomical” Caiafa says, noting that the need for innovation is relentless because “customers everywhere are becoming more intelligent. [You’re not dealing with] your typical spreadsheet analyst anymore. You’re dealing with engineers. Your product has to shift to be more developer focused. So more APIs, more data streams, more services that they can attach to and interface with programmatically.”
“We’re also”, he adds, “about to start pushing out our cloud offering.”
It arguably seems curious in 2022 – when hyperscalers continue to rule the cloud and those averse to it in general are running some flavour of their own tightly-managed on-premises environment – to be deploying your own custom-built “cloud” for customers to run workloads on, even as dedicated “financial services cloud” offerings from the likes of IBM and Oracle continue to proliferate and the grandaddy of public cloud AWS starts touting a platform “packaged and tailored for ultra-low latency capital markets use cases.” Why is SS&C doing this?
“This is very robust, purpose-built financial services cloud. The people that I’ve hired… their backgrounds are from Amazon, Digital Ocean, Google. We are building the powerful core foundations of network, storage, and compute, and then some ancillary services on top of it. We’re not looking to achieve feature parity with Amazon or any public cloud. That’s not the intention here,” Caiafa emphasises. “We build for what we know best and that is financial services. Our hardware is specially tuned, designed, and architected from the physical/software network layer to the hypervisor to the PaaS layer, specifically targeting financial transactional workloads. An example is our FIX environments which require specialized tuning and a unique knowledge; our cloud offers the exchange connectivities and latency requirements that an Amazon or Azure don’t offer.
“Our cloud” he says, “offers direct access to your data stores at sub-millisecond latencies that we have here internally. So now it’s all within our ecosystem. We have to stand by our SLA’s and our support structures – if we do not, any downtime is a significant loss for us and our customers.”
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He adds: “This isn’t your typical air quotes ‘cloud’… We built this on our user experience and our API’s, and then we worked back from there, abstracting each layer away. So you come in and it’s a full feature, rich user interface – we had a tonne of designers working on it. We know what our customers need internally and externally. And that’s the market that we’re hitting. This is brand new infrastructure, this is completely isolated. This is SOC2 compliant. This is SOC1 compliant. This is ISO compliant. It’s not GA yet but we eat our own dogfood and we’re migrating our own environment to this infrastructure.”
What has the CapEx hit been for that, we wonder?
“Probably somewhere between $40 and 60 million” the SS&C CTO says. “We started small. We wanted to ensure adoption. Then it just exploded. We were feeding capacity into this at such a rapid clip, and it grew from, you know, a few thousand cores to probably, you know, 300,000 cores. It’s a big environment…”
Talking of migrating SS&C environment over, how much “legacy” tech does it carry; e.g. challenging-to-migrate mainframe-based workloads? He’s quick to respond: “There’s always this misconception that mainframe is legacy. So we do run mainframe, but we run the latest mainframe. Mainframe is a tried and proven environment. And a mainframe is bullet proof. It does not go down! Yes it is expensive, yes it’s through IBM, yes it runs some older languages. But it is a very, very robust and good system. Yes there we have some older applications that still run on it and we have a bunch of initiatives internally to rebuild and revamp. But look at something like DB2: it can process something like 600 million transactions per second. There’s not many open systems that can do that…”
SS&C CTO Anthony Caiafa on building federated data environments
Another current priority for the CTO is SS&C Everywhere, which he describes as a “essentially a newer generation of data platform,” adding: “We are not looking to build another central monolithic data store.
“SS&C has 100’s of PB’s of data that wouldn’t make sense to centralise. Every down stream system has its unique requirements and features that should remain unique in their down stream data stores. We are focusing on a layer that coordinates the query across the federated downstream systems and pulls the data back up for a ‘response layer’ that normalises the data the user wants to see – once that data query is complete the data does not get stored anywhere – it will always remain in its downstream systems. It gives us the ability to continue to easily integrate any new products overnight and not have to worry about scaling a single database with the whole companies data. You can pick and choose what you want via API’s and Kafka topics. Customers will be able to run complex queries across all of their SS&C products they subscribe to – it will be a game changer.”
In terms of other challenges, like almost every CTO we speak with, recruitment remains demanding amid a hot market for talent. Caiafa sings the praises of the company’s scale and approach to innovation: “We’re solving some awesome problems. We run mission-critical infrastructure, and technology and services for all of these companies around the world. And it’s a great place to work; very entrepreneurial and very meritocratic. That’s rare in a company of this size: it comes from the top – founder and CEO Bill Stone – and it holds true across the board. You could be a desktop support technician and if you have a great product idea you can make it come to fruition, get funding and start a business around it: we have an internal Shark Tank-style thing where if you have a good business idea, you can get a prototype going, you can get funded as an idea. That’s what attracted me to the company when I joined.
Outside of work, meanwhile, there’s three young children to take care of and a tonne of sports coaching to do. As a self-proclaimed hardcore geek (“along with a core group of friends we’ve just been playing with computers since second grade; it just just never stopped”) the latter doesn’t always come naturally, he jokes: “ I didn’t really play many sports when I was growing up. So I just don’t really know how to do them. But I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m coaching football, baseball, basketball, soccer…. my son’s hitting that age where the parents are now much more serious. And my wife’s like, ‘you’re gonna have to stop soon’. But I’m gonna keep going!”