The cloud-native era: More than just datacenters in the sky

Enterprises everywhere are adopting new strategies to migrate their applications and systems to the cloud—but many are missing out on its true benefits as a platform for rapid innovation

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Cloud—it’s all the rage, with enterprises everywhere adopting new strategies to migrate their applications and systems to the cloud. But companies that think of the cloud simply as a cost-effective data server in the sky are missing out on its true benefits: as a platform for rapid innovation.

Why is this so important? Because innovation is the name of the game today, and companies that don’t innovate risk being disrupted by those that do. And it’s not just start-ups like Uber and Airbnb that are innovating and disrupting industries. Large, more-established players are doing it too; witness Amazon’s plans to transform health care and the health insurance industry, teaming with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to form an independent health care company for their U.S. employees. 

Another company that understands the importance of innovation is Netflix, which used it to disrupt not only the video-rental industry but its own business model as well. As odd as it might sound, Netflix wasn’t that different from a traditional brick-and-mortar shop. It shipped DVDs through the mail, with an IT architecture centered around an Oracle-based datacenter. Yet the company had the foresight to radically transform its technology architecture to enable a streaming video model; that led to a new approach in systems development, leveraging devops tool automation. It now runs on the cloud—which was the most natural landing platform for its new business model.

In fact, innovation is becoming so fast and cheap that companies that make it part of their DNA will be the disruptors, overthrowing those that don’t. That’s why leading companies across industries—from financial services to resources, to retail—understand the need for a rapid innovation and experimentation platform. And while cloud plays a key role in enabling this, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.    

Think of your technology infrastructure as a stack, or pillar, with four layers: At the top is the architecture, which drives the development process (the second layer), which in turn drives the tool set (the third layer), which then drives the execution platform (the bottom layer). In today’s technology era, cloud is the execution platform; above it is a devops tool set, which is driven by an agile development process—all of which are a result of today’s microservices architecture. In other words, the full power of the cloud execution platform comes from it being used with the modern architecture, processes, and automation capabilities—the top three layers of the technology stack.

Why your tech stack matters

Why are the three top layers so critical? Because without them your underlying technology platform is likely traditional, slow, and expensive, and such a structure doesn’t allow the frequent and rapid experimentation and innovation that businesses today need. To gain the real advantages that today’s IT era offers, organizations need to embrace not just cloud, but the other three layers that define the cloud-native approach:

  • The microservices architecture, by structuring applications as a collection of loosely coupled services, enables continuous delivery and deployment. In addition to improving modularity and making applications easier to develop and test, it allows different development teams to create, deploy, and scale their services independently.
  • Agile is about addressing and enabling change quickly and easily during the development process. By splitting the development process into time windows and providing a continuous feedback loop, Agile enables rapid, more-effective development—and the creation of supernimble organizations that can innovate quickly.
  • Devops focuses on how to get something from the design stage into a production environment as quickly as possible. It’s largely about automation—i.e., eliminating the need for human involvement in the production process. By enabling developers and infrastructure experts to use the same tools to track and control changes in both code and infrastructure—treating it all as software assets—devops lets you create a production environment within days or hours, rather than in the weeks or months previously required. In fact, Amazon uses this approach to such an extent that it now claims up to 10,000 changes per day in its production systems.

Opening up business opportunities across your ecosystem

By using the cloud-native approach—leveraging all four components of the technology stack—leading organizations across industries are not simply migrating their systems to the cloud, but creating modular, flexible, and aggressive open platforms. A bank, for example, can use this approach to develop APIs that allow third-party systems to connect to its own, expanding the reach of the bank’s mobile-banking capabilities beyond browsers and mobile phones.

In another example, Accenture used this approach to help a global hospitality company implement a digital key system—which leverages Bluetooth, proximity, and other technologies to let hotel guests use their mobile phone to unlock their room doors. Using a cloud-native approach—with a microservices-based architecture, agile development process, devops tools, and cloud delivery platform—my firm helped the company develop this capability in just four weeks. The solution enabled the company to fully leverage its digital ecosystem, which includes the various reservation pipelines and other reservation brokers, among other things.

Indeed, cloud is an extremely flexible delivery platform that can support many different architectural and deployment styles, whether big, monolithic systems; large virtual-machine deployments; nimble clusters of containers; or large farms of serverless functions. In fact, it’s flexible enough to carry most of the IT architectures from the last 20 years.

But to use cloud right—to get the maximum business benefits and value from it—you need to understand that it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Using cloud with old technology architectures, development processes and tools—such as to simply migrate legacy systems—might help you reduce IT costs and enhance operational efficiency, but it won’t help you compete in today’s disrupt-or-be-disrupted environment.

In other words, don’t be a cloud laggard, dragging old systems into the cloud. Be cloud-native—and innovate and thrive!

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