Canonical’s Anand Krishnan looks at how software innovation amongst technical firms is key in allowing them to keep ahead of the competition.
Disruption goes hand-in-hand with innovation in revitalising and inspiring whole industries and sectors. In the world of technology, innovation isn’t new – we’ve seen Amazon in retail, Skype and Whatsapp in telephony, and Netflix in media as examples of entities offering customers a service that is faster, cheaper, and, in most cases simply better, than what went before.
However, a broader swathe of industries are now waking up to the disruption they’re faced with as young rivals in these sectors pose existential threats to their businesses.
Companies are responding. Typically, an internal initiative is launched specifically to head off the threat of a disruptive competitor and the answer requires delivery of new capability, innovation and agility. For example, Amazon buying Whole Foods puts every established supermarket chain on watch for the inevitable disruption this will bring. Businesses must learn how to beat these trends rather than being left behind.
Bite the bullet and let software do the work
One weapon available to everyone in this arena, whether incumbent or disruptor, is Open Source software. At its core, open-source gives you a great deal of capability, available both in libraries of data and code, and also in the millions of individuals working on those libraries. But open-source also means a chance to share & crowd-source innovation.
By sharing your efforts to solve big, hard problems, you invite the world to help improve the answers in a way that any single company would struggle to do. It is now normal to find entities ranging from Walmart and Carrefour to eBay loudly open-sourcing their work & inviting anyone interested in retail innovation to help contribute & leverage this shared body of work. Sharing is always a leap of faith, but one that is well worth the effort, in this era of disruption.
And while open-source has typically been assumed to be referring to software, the concept is just as applicable to Operations i.e. how that software is operated in a data centre. For example, Deutsche Telekom and Bell Canada, two large telcos on different continents, share a similar approach to operations for their next-generation network infrastructure.
They have decided that sharing the same underlying models of their IT infrastructure gives everyone a competitive advantage. If one of them makes a marginal improvement to a piece of their own stack, everyone else using that stack benefits. Differentiation can now be focused on services delivered to end-users rather than the underlying servers they run on. We are going to start seeing a world where infrastructure and operational knowledge become a commodity, and where crowdsourcing of IT becomes something we do as a matter of course.
Define and tackle infrastructure complexity
One reason that this crowd-sourcing of IT is inevitable is that we are now dealing with a different class of software.
Most legacy infrastructure, that takes up the bulk of the budget and the floor-space in enterprise data centres, is typically comprised of monolithic, slow-changing applications – like a database server – running on a relatively small number of machines. But take any cutting-edge software capability today – machine-learning, big-data, or indeed an OpenStack architecture – and it must be integrated, configured and tuned in a way that is specific for each group of users.
The resulting solution is typically compiled from multiple, disparate sources and then deployed across elastic infrastructure that could scale to thousands of servers. Change – patches, versions, configuration updates – is assumed to be part of the daily beat not a special event. Operations at this scale & speed is a different, and far more complex, problem.
We coined the term “Big Software” to represent this class of at-scale software which organisations now rely on to stay ahead. Any innovating organisation must expect to ingest and rely on growing amounts of Big Software.
There is simply no way that any organisation can ramp up & maintain operational expertise of this new type rapidly enough to keep pace with the business imperative. But they can get there by open-sourcing their IT Operations knowledge. Doing this involves encapsulating operational expertise in intelligent open-source ‘models’ that are iterated on by many organisations at once. Those ‘models’ become the automation backbone for Big Software, delivering speed and economics that legacy IT approaches can only dream of.
READ MORE: The Great OpenStack Delusion – how open source cloud infrastructure can overcome a crisis
Unlock innovation via automation
Companies need to get past the mindset that IT operations have to be done by hand. That approach was adequate for the decade gone by, but in a world of at-scale infrastructure and agile, oft-changing, workloads being ingested from a variety of sources, every IT organisation has to think of running their data centres the way a Google or an Amazon runs theirs.
Companies routinely pour 80% of their IT budget into simply operating existing infrastructure; running required installations and upgrades, and basically, keeping the lights on – leaving just 20% for innovation. This is the shortfall that disruptors are able to exploit. If your business is to grow and remain competitive in this software-defined age, that dial needs to move the other way, and quite substantially.
Businesses need to bring the power of model-driven automation to their data centres. Where once IT teams would have done manual and one-off work across tens of machines, now model-driven operations will allow them to crunch big data sets, at will, on cloud infrastructure that just works. True model-driven automation pays for itself and then some.
Creative disruption is dominating all industries. Businesses need to learn that software innovation isn’t about making job cuts to slash the bottom line, it’s about loosening the grip of legacy thinking and letting software do more of the work. This will enable businesses to empower their employees to be smarter, move faster and innovate. Let software innovation unlock your inner disruptiveness in order to survive.