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Morningstar's CTO, EMEA, Neil Davidson on shifting to the cloud, API-centricity, and...

A world-leading provider of investment data, analytics and research is on a mission to migrate to the cloud by 2025 – and it’s finding benefits beyond its core business case.

Data is a central part of every successful business today but few can attest to its criticality much more than Morningstar, a financial services organisation whose investment data is relied upon by millions of people every day to inform decisions on how and where they invest their money.

Morningstar provides customers with data on more than 600,000 investment offerings such as stocks, mutual funds and other market vehicles, real-time market data on millions of global equities, and has more than $260 billion in assets under its management and advisement.

Data has always been a key ingredient in successful investment decision-making, but even more so today as people increasingly expect personalisations in all facets of their life. From an investor’s perspective, that might be driven by sustainability or a desire to avoid funds with exposure to sectors like tobacco or weaponry. Such personalisation is not possible without data. 

“At Morningstar our mission is to empower investor success – it’s the North Star of everything we do,” says Neil Davidson, CTO, EMEA, at Morningstar. “One of the core things we do is take the huge breadth of our data on the performance of investment products and produce ratings, analysis and opinions to inform the investment decisions of our clients and their customers. 

“As data is so crucial to our clients, we have to make the right technology decisions to ensure access to the data is as seamless as possible. Fortunately, everybody at Morningstar is encouraged to be entrepreneurial, which manifests in our ability to make decisions at quite a micro level. Obviously we have certain guardrails, but ultimately our teams are responsible for their own choices, picking the technology we think is best and then delivering in the right way.”

Mandate to migrate

A key focus for Morningstar in recent years has been the migration of its on-premise data centres to the cloud, which it aims to complete by 2025. There are several business benefits that make this move a no-brainer, not least the flexibility of the cloud which means Morningstar need no longer invest in building capacity on its own data servers to handle peaks of demand. 

The agility of cloud technology, meanwhile, enables Morningstar to push out product updates and respond to global markets in a much nimbler fashion. The company’s cloud-driven nimbleness was particularly evident during one of the most significant events to rock financial markets last year. Within days of Russia invading Ukraine, Morningstar had pushed out analytics to help clients understand their exposure to the top stocks in the firm’s Russia index. 

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“Morningstar will be 40 years old in 2024, so it’s not surprising given its age that there is a huge on-premise footprint,” says Davidson. “Aside from a few racks here or there for niche workloads and use cases, our global CTO has given us a very clear mandate that we are to be out of on-premise data centres by 2025. Part of that has been driven by compelling financial events. 

“We had one data centre that was going to require significant CapEx to upgrade end-of-life firewalls and network equipment. Rather than lose money by investing in that and not seeing an amortised return, it was a kickstarter to migrate that data centre and the workloads in it to the cloud. That alone was a strong business case for cloud, but the benefits spread much further.”

Product evolution

Just as importantly, if not more so, the transition to the cloud has supported Morningstar in its own product development evolution, enriching the client experience by adding capabilities that weren't possible previously. Morningstar’s Direct Web Services  business is a prime example. 

Today, the Direct Web Services product provides a seamless window into Morningstar’s data, research and calculations, but specifically designed for workloads that clients want to plug straight into their own digital experiences. This means clients don’t need to have a large database infrastructure at their end, as they can just plug the APIs directly into their front end. 

This product, however, actually started life as server side-rendered ASP.NET web pages that clients would embed into their websites and digital experiences using iframes. As the technology started to age, there was a move towards more of a front-end, API-driven architecture. Over time it became clear that Morningstar’s investments in one-off implementations and design work wasn’t scalable, and more clients simply wanted the APIs. 

“That natural pivot to a purely API business gave us, as technologists, the opportunity to reimagine the technology stack from the ground up, tying in nicely with our wider cloud migration,” says Davidson. “We've gone from monolithic, web server based APIs to running single concern micro service-style lambdas, great for almost infinite scale and cost efficiency.”

Powering the journey

Database company MongoDB has been a close partner on this journey, powering Direct Web Services in the background. What started with a self-managed, self-hosted community-edition MongoDB evolved to a hybrid cloud model, and now Morningstar is fully migrated to MongoDB Atlas, a multi-cloud database enabling it to run applications in any region.

Morningstar is largely taking a lift-and-shift approach with its products – modernising, iterating and breaking down monoliths as well as deploying serverless where efficiencies are identified – and the success is leading to further opportunities as other teams increasingly come knocking.

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Recently, for example, the company has built a new strategic platform for financial advisers, Morningstar Wealth Platform, on MongoDB Atlas. Over 255,000 financial advisers around the world work with Morningstar and the new platform can take care of the heavy lifting of administering investments for advisers’ clients so they can focus on spending time with them. It also provides seamless access to in-depth data insights and support with regulatory obligations.

“The footprint of MongoDB Atlas is growing organically in our business and that wouldn't be the case if people weren't having a good experience,” Davidson says. “I have to say we like Atlas, we think it's a really good product. We can pull, collect and aggregate data from our back-end sources into a product-level database and optimise different data models for different use cases. 

“It’s easy to deploy and it’s great to not have to run infrastructure with all the headaches and expense that come with it. The support is good, not just in a break-fix way but also functionality, questions and syntax, and how we model, design and deploy it. It's been a straightforward exercise and, as you see with Morningstar Wealth Platform, it’s leading to further opportunities.”

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