Netflix shows how to get cloud rolling

Streaming movie giant’s former cloud architect reveals how to dramatically speed up processes and shorten product development cycles

Unless enterprises implement leaner processes, give developers more freedom and offload as much of IT’s “undifferentiated heavy lifting” as possible to the cloud, they won’t be able to compete in the emerging business landscape, former Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockcroft has warned.

Speaking at the Cloud Expo Europe 2014 conference in London last week, Cockcroft – who recently left the media streaming service (after more than six years) for start-up incubator Battery Ventures – said traditional enterprises needed to become more agile.

Citing the example of thermostat manufacturers – whose once-simple "mercury tilt switch" products now have to compete against intelligent, connected devices from the likes of Google-acquired start-up Nest – Cockcroft said: “This is one of the big transformational times in IT and it’s a huge challenge. It is what Netscape founder turned venture capitalist Marc Andreesen is talking about when he says ‘software is eating the world’. How are you going to survive when your competitors are the likes of Google and Apple?”

Drawing on military strategy, Cockcroft went on: “In the Korean War, Colonel John Boyd had a bunch of pilots he’d send out dog-fighting. The ones that came back every day were the ones that figured out how to be competitive. The ones that didn’t got shot down.”

Cycle fast to get ahead

How are you going to survive when your competitors are the likes of Google and Apple?

Adrian Cockcroft, Battery Ventures

He explained Boyd’s strategy for survival in the skies was based on four stages. Pilots had to observe, orient, decide and act, then repeat this process in a loop. The survivors were those that could get around this loop faster than their airborne rivals. “Applying that to business, if you can cycle round this observe-orient-decide-act loop faster than your competitors, then you can disorient them and move ahead in the market,” he said.

Product development cycles in non-cloud-based enterprises takes months because of lengthy processes and approvals for assessing customer needs, specifying systems, procurement, deployment and testing. “And when you’ve done all that, the customer often says ‘it sucks’, months after you came up with the idea,” Cockcroft said.

The first step towards becoming more agile is to speed up hardware provisioning by moving to a cloud infrastructure model, but this is not good enough on its own. Businesses also need to adopt platform-as-a-service (PaaS) to speed up software development, he said.

Find the right platform

PaaS brings down the time it takes to put in and assess new features to just days

Adrian Cockcroft, Battery Ventures

Netflix built its own open-source platform, which it has made publicly available on its Github page, but Cockcroft also name-checked a number of innovative PaaS providers to show how the sector is evolving. “Heroku was one of the first in this space. Then there’s Cloud Foundry, which has been getting a lot of traction recently, as well as new players like Apcera which I think of as next-generation Cloud Foundry. Docker’s also seeing a lot of activity, while on the big data side Continuuity gives you a platform for doing big data analytics effectively,” he said.

Using PaaS means you can introduce and assess individual new product features rapidly, rather than bundling together several changes into a periodic product release that may or may not satisfy customers. “It brings the time it takes to put in a new feature and figure out if it meets customers’ needs down to just days. That’s where Netflix and a lot of software as a service (SaaS) providers are today in terms of speed,” said Cockcroft.

He stressed, though, that these steps have to be combined with light-touch processes and a culture of individual responsibility. “You need freedom of innovation and freedom of responsibility. At Netflix, the product manager talks directly to the developer and the developer goes straight to production. Developers don’t have to go back to the CIO to ask if they can make a specific change – they just do it and then share that they’ve done it. There’s minimum interaction, minimum hand-offs. As a result, the risk of every change is reduced and the rate of change increases,” he said.

Aim for the higher strata of cloud

Beyond PaaS, he said corporate enterprises could gain even more agility by moving higher-level functions to the cloud. “Building business applications is also undifferentiated heavy lifting. Everyone’s doing similar customisations. So you could replace that piece with business process as a service (BPaaS) or SaaS. Then a business user can set up or configure the application – taking the developer out of the loop entirely,” he said.

“The best-known company in this space, of course, is Meanwhile, Mendix is the first company with a BPaaS solution, and then there’s Platfora which allows you to do big data analytics without getting involved in writing any code.”

Ultimately, Cockcroft believes this is the route corporates must take if they want to be agile enough to survive their imminent dogfights with nimble, cloud-powered competitors. “Only then can you get round the loop in hours, rather than days, weeks or months,” he said.

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