Are Asian CIOs ready for container technology?

Could risk aversion slow the growth of containerisation – touted as an enabler of innovation – in the region?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Asia-Pacific: CW ASEAN: June 2016:

Containers represent a significant shift for enterprise application development and deployment. In fact, they’re all the rage, what with their ease of use, flexibility and agility – whether it’s modernising existing applications or building new web- or cloud-native workloads. Or enabling DevOps.

They remove the reliance on virtual machines and hypervisors and sit across a uniform operating system (OS) layer. They wrap up a piece of software in a complete filesystem that contains everything it needs to run, such as code, runtime, system tools and system libraries. This guarantees that it will always run the same way, regardless of the environment.

“New cloud-ready applications need to be built to pull resources without a dedicated OS,” said Jason Singh, head of marketing, Asia-Pacific (Apac) at Datapipe. “It is far easier and quicker to build these rules when developing new applications compared with building the rules into legacy applications – some of which can be up to 30 years old.”

Also, containers are well suited to DevOps best practices due to their portability, fast deployment times and standard units of operations.

Hype versus adoption

In June 2015, when Red Hat released the results of a survey (representing more than 383 global IT decision makers and professionals) assessing enterprise adoption plans for application containers, it found that while container adoption is likely to surge in the next few years, concerns around security, certification and adequate staffing skills remained.

The survey results showed strong enterprise plans for container deployments, with 67% of respondents planning production roll-outs over the next two years.

While the intention to adopt container technology might be there among large enterprises, on the ground the technology offered by companies such as Docker and CoreOS is yet to gain traction.

“Containers are packaging software that eliminates dependencies on platforms and brings transparency to application building,” said Dirk-Peter van Leeuwen, senior vice-president and general manager, Apac, Red Hat. “This becomes a critical technology because of the wave of digital transformation and the need for enterprises to respond to new startups in the market.”

The view from south-east Asia

South-east Asia offers huge market opportunities that enterprises (and startups) want to tap into. However, this is also a fast-evolving market, in terms of technology adoption, led by rapid urbanisation and growth in consumer spending, particularly among the region’s middle class.

This situation forces technology leaders across enterprises and businesses in this region to respond to the market’s needs with solutions and applications that can be tested and deployed quickly.

And that’s where the challenge is. While businesses need to release and deploy new applications as swiftly as possible, this needs to be done without disrupting business operations.

“Some larger, older companies have decades-old legacy systems that they must work with,” said Ron Hart, CTO at back-up supplier Dropsuite. “In such instances, container technology might face limitations. However, with most established Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) enterprises, we would expect more gradual adoption of microservice architectures, mainly due to the cautious nature which regional businesses have in adopting new technologies.”

Glen Francis, president of Singapore-based regional think tank, CIO Academy Asia, agreed. “CIOs in Asia are certainly concerned about being agile when managing their businesses’ increasing expectations,” he said. “They are, however, limited by their legacy systems. The initial view is that the term ‘containers’ is not even well understood by the leaders here.”

Read more about container technology

  • The promise of portability has many IT shops experimenting with containers. But enterprises have yet to deploy complex containers, and migration remains difficult.
  • Docker containers can help secure cloud applications, but malicious traffic can still move to and from those containers.
  • Docker’s service-centric approach to container-based virtualisation takes virtualisation technology to a whole new level, but still has some serious drawbacks.

The brave ones in Asean

While the large enterprises in Asean are hamstrung by legacy systems, newer companies are defying the trend. There is a global shift towards a microservice architecture supported by technologies, such as Docker.

According to Hart, there are plenty of early adopters of microservice development throughout Asean. Alpha7, for example, is a Singapore-based cloud services startup that builds its systems and platform using containers.

Brian Parkinson, COO, Alpha7, said: “We can roll out our applications and services more efficiently, allowing our customers to enjoy new features and functions faster than existing processes otherwise could – and faster than our competitors can.”

Dropsuite’s Hart added: “From our experience, with a number of microservice architecture pilots underway, we have inferred that Docker containers are fairly simple to deploy in the cloud because of packaging and shipping efficiencies.

“For example, from our local development environment we can shuffle between development, quality assurance and production from either the cloud or on-premise architectures, with the same stack running from multiple locations.”

“It’s too early to tell if the production workloads at Dropsuite will fully migrate to microservice architectures, but we are testing them with various partner integrations,” said Hart. “We like what we have seen so far.”

A dual-model approach could work

While south-east Asian enterprises are generally risk averse and have traditionally been slow to implement new systems, the challenge (for the innovative ones at least) is juggling time-to-market against risk aversion. Is there a solution, a middle path? Alpha7’s Parkinson believes there is.

“Traditionally, a dual-mode operating environment is the preferred methodology, comprising production and beta testing,” said Parkinson. “With the introduction of container and Docker technology, dual-mode operations can be executed with ease and speed, along with lowered costs and greater reliability in new systems provisioning.”

“It is dangerous for enterprises not to have this [container] technology because it shortens the innovation cycle,” said Benjamin Henshall, director of application development, Red Hat at Apac.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn are using container technology and Google deploys around two billion instances a year, added Henshall.

“In the context of Asia, swapping legacy systems for new technology requires significant effort, and the business, not just the IT department, must be willing to prioritise this with other potential initiatives that help drive business expansion or growth,” said Academy Asia’s Francis.

The constraints on the supply side need to be removed too, as the landscape of suppliers is ever-changing and more new players are coming out into the market.

“The challenge for most CIOs is having time and trust of the newer technology, including containers,” said Francis. “Good technologies require time and capital for their expansion. If these technologies are to be adopted in Asia, they will need to have a proper support structure to give comfort to Asean CIOs.

“Most Asean CIOs face shortage in resources and talent and they rely on outsourced support. If the outsourced support is limited for these new technologies, the chances of adoption will be slim,” added Francis.  

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