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Executive interview: Abby Kearns, Cloud Foundry Foundation

Computer Weekly speaks to Abby Kearns, executive director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation about how open source is a key ingredient of digital transformation

The Cloud Foundry Foundation is a community supporting public, private and hybrid application environments built on an open source platform as a service.

In the world of cloud native computing, loosely coupled applications run in containers – usually Docker – and are orchestrated using tools such as Kubernetes.

On top of this basic structure, there are hundreds of niche projects, each filling in gaps and creating new tools and programmable services to flesh out a cloud native blueprint. Cloud Foundry is an open source platform that extrapolates much of the technical infrastructure required to build a cloud native system, and in doing so, simplify the steps needed to run digitisation projects.

Computer Weekly spoke to its executive director, Abby Kearns, at the Copenhagen Cloud Native Computing Forum developer conference in April 2018. “We have a skills shortage,” says Kearns. “If all the large enterprises decided they needed to hire 1,000 people this year, the first thing is that 1,000 cloud-native experts don’t exist, and then you multiply that out to 1,000 enterprises.” There are simply not enough cloud-native developers out there.

Open source software offers business a different relationship with software. For individual developers, “open source is a great way to build your CV”, says Kearns. “It is a great way to show your talent through your git repository.”

When asked whether businesses understand how open source differs to commercial software, she explains that people don’t own it, but it offers a driving force to encourage enterprises to reskill their developers in cloud native computing, to fill the skills gap within their organisations and across the industry as a whole.

Cloud native provides a thoroughly modern IT architecture that draws on the technology used in highly scalable systems run by the web giants. A cloud-native approach provides a way for businesses to run flexible, scalable IT that can be adapted and changed quickly to meet new business requirements.

Enthusiasm for open source

“It’s no coincidence that the popularity and enthusiasm for open source has blown up at the same time as digital transformation,” she says. “Many user organisations are becoming software companies; software is becoming a prevailing part of their conversation around competing in their industry sectors.”

And companies are not only using open source – they also want to be part of the open source community.

Why companies are embracing open source

“Traditionally, users are not regarded as active in the open source community,” says Kearns. But now, 40% of Cloud Foundry members are end users. Members include American Airlines, Home Depot, Comcast and Tibco.

When asked why there was increasing interest from user businesses, she says companies are increasingly saying they are an open source organisation and want to participate, because it is important for them to stay in control. “If I am leveraging a platform that is shaping the future of my company, I want to be able to ensure that platform continues to evolve to meet my needs.”

A change is happening industry-wide. “Every industry is being upended,” she says. “Every business is having to compete with different competitors. There are now over 2,000 fintech startups, of which 190 received funding in the last 90 days.”

She says the traditional Banks are not worried about existing rivals, and the real worry is the startups each taking a milli-slice of the business. “To compete, it is no longer enough to have a mobile app and a website,” says Kearns.

Speaking of her own experience of moving from a 100-year-old bank to a digital native bank, she says: “It is cheaper, has better interest rates and, if I’m a traditional bank, that should scare me. What’s the differentiator?

“It isn’t like banking underneath the covers has changed a lot. The differentiator is software. Digital transformation may be a buzzword, but you need to able to develop software to compete in your market.”

Read more about cloud native architectures

  • Composable applications can be built from connecting microservices that run in their own containers. This cloud-first approach requires a new approach to networking.
  • Clive Longbottom ponders whether enterprises need to adopt an open source-first strategy for hybrid cloud success.

As Kearns points out, the bank’s customers probably do not care what public cloud the back-end systems run in. “All they care about is that they have access to a functional app that lets them achieve what they set out to do,” she says. “This is what differentiates your business. People shouldn’t be spending millions of dollars debating what server they have because customers do not care what servers you use.”

Rather, she sees the role of open source platforms like Cloud Foundry as a way for businesses to remove the heavy lifting and concentrate on activities that are differentiators.

The general idea is that layer upon layer of open source tools and projects can be built on to abstract complexity. “Businesses do not need to think about how to make this technology their own,” says Kearns.

Instead, they can take advantage of the work put in by others in the open source community and build on top of these projects with their unique, software-powered products and services.

Resistance to change

But there are two opposing forces in many organisations: the resistance to change and the need to change. “You not only need a consistent vision, but also the ability and persistence to get there and this is hard,” says Kearns.

While technology is the foundation of digital transformation, no technology driven transition can occur without the buy-in of people. “Technology is not like a unicorn; teams of developers do not magically improve productivity. It is an enabler, supporting a broader shift you have to make,” she says.

This may be continuous delivery or agile practices. “The idea is that you are allowing people to have a conversation, communicating across the different silos you have today,” says Kearns.

This enables everyone to work towards a single business outcome, which sounds really simple, but Kearns warns enabling people to communicate easily across different business silos is actually really hard.

Communications structure

“If you work in a 100-year-old company, there is a lot of rigidity in the way the business functions, such as the way communications flow within the organisations,” she says. “This dictates how technology is used.” The idea that a system mirrors the communications structure in an organisation was originally introduced by computer scientist Melvin Conway in 1967, and it still holds true today.

Conway’s Law is a real thing. If the business wants to deploy code every day, that’s great – but what does it really mean? It means you need to give developers control, you need to put in processes to automate their pipeline and you need to add test-driven development; and that means you need agile practices,” says Kearns.

“All of this means the business needs to take down all the gates it has established for change management,” she says. “There’s a lot of gates and people you have to move out of the business process.”

So while improving the way collaboration works across a business has a somewhat simplistic outcome, Kearns says there are lots of steps needed to get there. Using open source is a part of this journey. 

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