How a push to the cloud helped a Ukrainian bank keep faith with customers amid war

Customers wait outside a PrivatBank branch in Melitopol, Ukraine on February 15, 2022, just days before the Russian invasion.

Customers wait outside a PrivatBank branch in Melitopol, Ukraine on February 15, 2022, just days before the Russian invasion. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Ukraine’s largest bank preserved economic stability for 20 million customers amid an ongoing war with Russia.

LAS VEGAS — In February 2022, the Ukrainian government made the decision to migrate terabytes of critical government data, property records and information to the Amazon Web Services cloud, hoping to preserve integral digital services for its citizens with Russian forces invading.

The effort ultimately proved “priceless,” according to Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Federov, providing the Ukrainian government continuity and resiliency amid bomb strikes and cyber attacks.

As revealed Tuesday at AWS’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest bank, undertook a similar data migration and modernization effort — also with AWS — that may have saved its economy, and at a minimum provided financial stability for 20 million Ukrainian customers. With the bank’s primary and backup data centers “at risk” in a warzone, chief operating officer Mariusz Kaczmarek told reporters a well-positioned Russian strike could have knocked out a financial system that provides more than half of Ukraine’s ATM cash withdrawals.

“When tensions start, what do citizens usually do? They go withdraw money,” Kaczmarek said. “We were thinking about what we could do to make the country stable. We decided we had no other option but to migrate to the cloud.”

Liam Maxwell, AWS’ director of government digital transformation, called the cloud migration that commenced a likely “record” for a financial institution, condensing what would have been a “1.5 year migration to less than 45 days.” Maxwell noted the bank did the opposite of a typical cloud migration, migrating the entirety of its data rather than iterative chunks.

“The physical threat of destroying infrastructure changes your modus operandi,” said Kaczmarek, who added that he only had four technical professionals on his team familiar with AWS’ cloud environment prior to the migration. “We were jumping into the unknown.”

There were issues, Kaczmarek said, including long hours worked by bank employees to complete the migration and concerns over their physical safety. And because they were moving the bank’s entire system to the cloud, there were periods where short outages occurred. Kaczmarek likened the situation to hastily moving out of a house and rapidly unpacking all your belongings in a new home. In other words, a bed or kitchen appliance might end up in the bathroom or on the terrace.

“The fact that we lifted and shifted everything into the cloud did not allow us to unpack properly,” he said. “People were actually tolerant to our failures; there was a lot of understanding that the country and officials of the government have a lot of effort to make sure that basic services like the internet are there.”

In the months since, the bank has formalized its relationship with AWS, as well as standardized and automated best practices, simplified its architecture and done the equivalent of a clean-up after the migration. The bank is now is focused on creating new products and services for citizens even as the war against Russia continues.

“That continuity is actually one of the strongest signs of initial resistance to the full-scale invasion, because in the end, you know, we can carry on no matter what you throw at us,” Kaczmarek said.

In a recorded video statement presented during the remarks, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Digital Transformation, Valeriya Ionan, commended the bravery of Ukrainians and okayed risk-taking in the face of existential threats.

“There is no sense to be afraid of risky solutions if you might face the bigger risk,” she said. Ionan added that the Ukrainian government’s move to the cloud “basically saved Ukrainian critical infrastructure and made it possible to run the state smoothly under full-scale Russian invasion.”

Since the beginning of the war with Russia, Maxwell said Ukraine has moved 161 state registries and 356 organizations to the cloud, along with 15 petabytes of critical government data. AWS has committed more than $105 million in support to assist Ukrainians’ short- and long-term needs, and recently launched ITSkills4U, a free workforce development initiative now providing 17,000 Ukrainian refugees with skills training and support services.

“The message I think we learned this year was that the continuity of public services is actually a really strong component of the strength of Ukraine,” Maxwell said. “And being able to keep going and keep the state going no matter what has been very powerful.”