In pursuit of frictionless IT, Red Hat buys Ansible

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright October 18, 2015
Here's why Red Hat acquired Ansible, and the important takeaways about enterprise IT's journey to the cloud, devops and the world of frictionless IT

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Enterprise IT is on a journey to come to terms with cloud computing. Red Hat's acquisition of Ansible, announced Friday, maps to that journey. Here's why Red Hat made the acquisition, and why that journey matters to enterprise IT.

Some background first. Red Hat has risen to prominence (and close to $2 billion annual revenue) as the leading provider of enterprise-ready open source software, primarily Linux. But its business is in transition, as Fortune's Barb Darrow described last month at the time of its quarterly earnings announcement:

Red Hat, like every other tech company, is managing a shift in customer workloads from on-premises facilities to cloud deployment where the customer may not own or operate the servers running its workloads.

That shift to the cloud is hitting other enterprise IT vendors so hard their very survival is threatened. Red Hat is better placed to survive, so long as it tracks enterprise adoption and continues to be the preferred supplier of open soruce software for those new platforms.

Thus last year, Red Hat bought leading OpenStack expert eNovance (read my take on eNovance) to beef up its skills as enterprise adoption of OpenStack accelerates. The OpenStack route is seen as a more interoperable alternative to the proprietary public clouds of Amazon, Google and Microsoft. It is especially well suited to 'hybrid' environments which allow for movement between public and private hosts.

Red Hat's acquisition of Ansible is designed in part to ease implementation of OpenStack, where Ansible's IT automation software is often used. But it goes further, because the type of software Ansible represents is at the core of how cloud computing operates in ways that are very different from traditional enterprise IT.

Enterprise IT fit for the cloud

More background now. Ansible is an example of the trend in cloud computing towards 'infrastructure as code', originally developed to automate the datacenters of large-scale web providers such as Yahoo, Google and Amazon. It wasn't economically viable to have sysadmins laboriously configure individual servers, so they developed ways to express those configurations as a predefined software script which a program could download and run on a virtual server.

This automation reduced a manual process that used to take hours down to one that executes programmatically in minutes. (More modern iterations that run on containers shorten this to seconds). Cutting the delivery time so radically in turn facilitated the emergence of the devops approach to software development, which emphasizes close collaboration between development and operations along with rapid iteration of changes.

Ansible is less well known (and perhaps crucially for Red Hat therefore also cheaper to buy) than its competitors Chef Software and Puppet Labs, but is said to be simpler and easier to use. As Silicon Angle's Maria Deutscher writes, this is especially valuable when applied to the complexities of OpenStack:

Customers will be able to provision new nodes using [Red Hat]'s homegrown Satellite lifecycle management software, configure those nodes with Ansible and manage the high-level architecture of the environment through the Red Hat Cloudforms platform. That end-to-end value proposition could go a long way towards simplifying the management of hybrid environments and OpenStack in particular, thus lowering one of its main adoption barriers.

But a tool like Ansible is also essential if enterprises are to fully realize the benefits of cloud computing, the purpose of which is not merely to 'forklift' existing applications into virtualized cloud datacenters, as former Netflix chief architect Adrian Cockroft so memorably called it.

Enterprises are gaining most benefit from cloud computing when they copy the highly automated devops practices of cloud providers to build all-new applications using a cloud-style microservices architecture, often taking advantage of modern database technologies too. As Chef Software told me earlier this year, this results in far more flexible, responsive IT and can lead to a complete transformation in the way an enterprise operates its IT in as little as 12 to 24 months. At the same time, as Puppet Labs explained, devops can also be extended to management of existing IT assets.

This is all very well but how does enterprise IT come to terms with all of this?

Frictionless enterprise, frictionless IT

For the past five years, I've been writing (and speaking) sporadically about the concept of frictionless enterprise — the introduction of new business processes, enabled by digital technology, to eliminate friction from enterprise interactions.

So I was intrigued to see Red Hat earlier this year set out the concept of frictionless IT, as outlined in a blog post by its general manager of cloud management strategy Alessandro Perilli:

With the term Frictionless IT, Red Hat means an enterprise IT that just works, reshaped after the experience offered by modern consumer-grade public cloud services, which business users are growing to expect ...

If IT organisations fail to deliver Frictionless IT, lines of business (LoB) will simply go elsewhere and get the job done with the tool that is most convenient (simplicity, not cost) out of the many available.

This is the broader context to the acquisition of Ansible — the imperative for enterprise IT to harness tools and practices that, as Perilli says, enable ease-of-use, speed and seamless integration in the delivery of IT. Business leaders are already becoming alert to the trend towards frictionless enterprise and are demanding the IT to enable it. Red Hat is building out its toolset to deliver that, and Ansible is an important addition.

But the job is not completed merely by providing the tools. Perilli, with his background as a Gartner analyst, is also thinking about the organizational and cultural challenges as enterprise IT attempts to negotiate the path towards frictionless IT.

He and I met for lunch last month (Ansible was not discussed) and we exchanged notes while planning a debate which, fortuitously, takes place in London in a couple of days' time. As with so much of the transition to cloud, it's not the technology that's the hardest part, it's the changes that the people involved have to go through.

I would add that the technology changes are not limited to the infrastructure layer — an agile, iterative approach to new funcationality and a collaborative development style are equally characteristic of cloud applications. The mindset change applies at every layer of the technology stack.

With that in mind, (and if you'll forgive the plug) the agenda for Wednesday's early evening debate includes Perilli along with speakers from Chef Software, container hosting provider Elastichosts and, on the applications side, Google for Work partner Ancoris. I won't therefore, as is customary, give my take here, but will wait until I have heard the outcome of the debate.

Disclosure: The author acts as volunteer chair of EuroCloud UK, to which his consulting business provides some event management services. Ancoris, Red Hat and Elastichosts are members of EuroCloud UK.

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