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Cloud computing has taken the IT world by storm. Less than a decade old, cloud computing is now firmly placed as the de facto infrastructure for all new applications. Given its success, it’s tempting to think that its revolutionary impact is complete, and future innovation will come from a different direction. That thought, while understandable, is incorrect. When it comes to the cloud, as the saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Here’s why.
Accelerating Technology Change
The notion that things are changing faster and faster is widely shared — so much so that it can be considered a sort of a cliche. But, just as cliches often capture a general truth, so too does the notion that our society and economy are moving faster than ever before.
The reason is straightforward: we are experiencing “accelerating technology change.” The key to that statement is the first word: accelerating. Computer processing is infusing more and more elements of our business and personal lives. As processing form factors shrink via Moore’s Law, computing moves into new areas and devices.
Less than a decade ago, the mobile phone went from a talking device to a computing device, with integrated GPS, accelerometer, time, photography and video, and IP communication, unleashing an incredible wave of innovation via the app revolution. This year, we will see the arrival of wearables with the initial launch of smartwatches. Too many people make the common mistake of viewing a new technology platform as an inferior form of the existing platform, so many initial reviews of smartwatches criticize them as being inadequate versions of smartphones. If history tells us anything, clever inventors and entrepreneurs will take the new platform as a launchpad for totally new applications and use cases, so look for interesting wearable innovation over this and coming years.
And here’s the thing: it doesn’t stop with wearables. The reason technology is accelerating is that each doubling of Moore’s Law delivers vastly increased capability—instead of the 240 million to 480 million transistor per chip increase of a decade ago, today it’s from to 4 billion to 8 billion—in other words, each of today’s doubling delivers 10 times the total amount of processing power available a decade ago. So, we will continue on the curve of accelerating technology change, and this will underlay the torrid pace of IT innovation 2015 will bring.
IT: From Back Office to Front Line of the Business
Traditionally, IT has automated repetitive business functions and reduced their cost. For example, in the early days of computing, companies used IT to move payroll processing from handwritten paycards to automated systems. This automation process migrated many aspects of business to software systems: invoicing, inventory tracking, document preparation and the like. Consequently, IT became viewed primarily as a cost reduction mechanism, and was measured according to how cheaply it could perform its tasks. In the parlance of organizational theory, companies considered IT as a cost center and part of corporate overhead.
Today that is all changing. IT is no longer just a way to perform back office functions less expensively than having humans do the same job. With the accelerating technology change described above, we increasingly execute business and personal activities via software- based systems. As the phrase goes, bits are replacing atoms.
To offer an example, just a few years ago if you visited a foreign city, you bought a tourist guide and a map. Getting around required figuring out the local transit system and how to buy tickets, often from a not-very-helpful employee. Today, a mobile phone is a magic portal that simplifies all manner of travel challenges. Google Maps helps you discern where to go, and TripAdvisor can tell you everything you need to know about quality restaurants and hotels. Transit systems have apps to offer tickets with information in many languages, and scanners to read electronically-delivered tickets. And if you want to communicate with someone who only speaks the local language, Google Translate facilitates conversation with a real-time translation.
Every one of the services accessed via this magic portal is a software application exposed through the mobile device. Using these applications is so much easier and, from the application provider’s perspective, so much more efficient, that online interaction is quickly becoming the default way we live and work. The net effect of this is that IT is moving out of the back office and into the front lines of business today.
Increased Adoption of Cloud Computing
The shift of IT from back office functions to the front line of business carries an important implication in terms of the resources required to operate these new customer-facing applications. Traditional back office applications are quite predictable—stable user populations, highly consistent usage loads, static topologies and infrastructure, and so on.
The new breed of front line applications are nothing like traditional back office systems. They are highly unpredictable in every dimension—so traditional data center environments aren’t a good fit to operate them. The shift of how we do business means that companies need new computing environments that are flexible, hugely scalable, rapidly reconfigurable, and highly elastic—able to add or subtract application resources quickly and easily. In a phrase, companies need cloud computing.
The decade-long shift of the nature of IT almost exactly tracks the growth curve of cloud computing. And one can only expect to see cloud usage continue to explode, given the dynamics explored in the first section of this piece. The scale of this adoption is a subject of some controversy. Many industry observers have fairly modest expectations of cloud adoption, seeing cloud computing as an incremental addition to what will remain the preponderance of infrastructure usage, traditional back office applications.
However, this viewpoint is almost certainly wrong. Every platform shift in the history of IT has brought at least an order of magnitude increase in usage, and one should expect to see this repeated, at least, with cloud computing. With the ongoing pattern shift of atoms to bits, the growth of cloud computing could be significantly larger than even the ten times associated with an order of magnitude.
New Application Architectures
One critical restraint in the shift to cloud-based applications, with their highly erratic load patterns and service mashup functionality, is the inadequacy of traditional application architectures. The monolithic three-tier application architecture, based on hand- installed software components and hand-configured connectivity, can’t meet the needs of modern application operations.
When an application is composed of dozens or hundreds of different kinds of functions (e.g., a restaurant review app that draws in GPS- based restaurant lists, cloud storage-based photos, user-submitted reviews, and provides a reservation transaction capability), the many component parts update at different frequencies, while the end application itself may change frequently as new functionality or bugfixes roll out on their own schedule.
Trapping all of that complex, frequently changing software system in a monolithic, hard-to-build, hard-to-configure, application delivery package is a recipe for dissatisfaction, if not disaster. The new front line application world expects frequent and low-effort change, and traditional application architectures can’t deliver it.
Consequently, one can expect to see new application architectures come to the fore. The new microservices architecture, in which many independently operating API-exposing mini-applications are assembled into a larger aggregation comprising a single end user- facing application, is the new application architecture paradigm. This paradigm, pioneered by Netflix and other “webscale” Internet- based offerings, is rapidly migrating into enterprises, which, after all, are increasingly coming to resemble the webscale offerings of online enterprises.
One challenge of these new architectures is that they require new skills on the part of application developers and operators. Moreover, they require new toolsets for both application lifecycle management and operational monitoring and management. Enterprise IT is likely to see a new set of companies added to their approved vendor lists, as legacy providers struggle to update their tools to manage these new application topologies, and new, innovative companies deliver products suitable for the new world of IT.
The need for new application architectures is a second-order aspect of the cloud computing revolution, and one not widely perceived. Look to this year as one in which the constraint of traditional application architectures becomes more widely comprehended.
The Battle for Skills
Just as legacy infrastructure and architectures are poorly suited for the new world of applications, so too are legacy IT skills. Not only are many IT personnel inadequately skilled for the new demands of cloud computing, many resist the need to develop new talents at all, decrying cloud computing as just a flash-in-the-pan or as something suited for companies outside of their own.
The underlying shift of technology requires new skills. Even more important, the changing nature of business means a skill shortage doesn’t just imply delayed upgrades to the existing email system—it means being unprepared to do business they way customers want and competitors deliver. And that’s something no company can afford.
As companies come to recognize how critical building new applications that are designed and operated for cloud environments is, one can expect a vicious battle for skill acquisition. In essence, developers are now the resource in shortest supply and this shortage represents a bottleneck in enabling companies to do business in the 21st century way.
The long-heralded Information Age, which was predicted to supplant the Industrial Age, has now arrived in full force. As technology functionality and adoption continue to accelerate, IT capability will rapidly come to represent a key corporate resource. Those companies that recognize this fact will be well-prepared for this year’s dynamic environment, while those that overlook it — or worse, deny it — will find themselves lagging further and further behind the leaders in their industries.