Infrastructure in 2019: Highlights so far

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko August 22, 2019
It's been a busy year so far for infrastructure topics. Here are the main themes we see with a taste of what's ahead.

infrastructure as a service

The annual enterprise infrastructure extravaganza known as VMworld happens next week. For tech watchers, that means the end of summer and the start of a busy fall season of vendor dog and pony shows.

The milestone also makes it a good time to look back on the significant technology trends, news events and product announcements in the realm of enterprise infrastructure, cloud services and application platforms so far this year.

The first half of 2019 featured the continued incursion of cloud infrastructure and services into the enterprise, however, it was also noteworthy for advances in hybrid cloud services, container technology and AI, along with some headline-grabbing cloud and enterprise security breaches.

Enterprise infrastructure, both the traditional data center and services operated by IT and the various vendors serving them, is being drastically restructured by the snowballing immensity of cloud service providers.

Indeed, whether an organization uses cloud infrastructure or not, recent market estimates and financial reports from the likes of Intel, NVIDIA, Broadcom and others show that the mega cloud providers now drive, and account for any remaining growth in, the market for enterprise hardware and, increasingly, software. However, services like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud have only scratched the surface of the immense totality of enterprise infrastructure. The end of last year and 2019 to date have witnessed the battle for enterprise business only intensify.

Cloud proliferation, enterprise integration

I summarized the booming cloud business at AWS and Microsoft in February by highlighting the fallacy of Wall Street’s focus on slowing growth rates rather than the total revenue each adds every quarter to their $10+ billion businesses. I revisited the topic last month by emphasizing the benefits to enterprise customers of intense competition between the three major cloud providers, writing that

Technology watchers have been conditioned by the success of various hardware and software platforms to think of every technology market as being defined by network effects; namely that the more users of a platform, the more valuable it becomes to both users and providers. [ However ]

The cloud infrastructure and applications market is a critical foundation of the digital economy that resembles big oil more than it does natural monopolies like water and power. Network effects help the providers by making their applications more useful, while the increased usage funds the significant investments required to build world-class data centers and develop innovative new AI and analytics services. There is plenty of business for three major vendors to fight over without existential risks to any of them, with enough leftover for smaller providers targeting niche markets and specialized needs.

The fortuitous result for enterprise buyers is seeing deep-pocketed cloud services innovating at a furious pace and battling for enterprise business. In other words, a buyer’s heaven.

The prime example of cloud competitiveness is the effort to support legacy enterprise workloads via hybrid cloud infrastructure, where cloud vendors have a two-pronged strategy. First, gain trust as organizations migrate existing applications, which leads to part two: becoming the preferred destination for future workloads as organizations evolve away from privately-owned infrastructure and build cloud-native enterprise applications.

AWS got a jump on the 2019 action at re:Invent late last year as summarized in this column highlighting the company’s acknowledgment that most organizations won’t wholly abandon private systems for public services, but instead want a convenient way to mix the two. The hybrid cloud trend picked up steam in 2019 as Google Cloud and Dell-EMC and used their respective customer conferences to prominently feature products designed to bridge the gap been private and public clouds.

Everyone has a hybrid cloud

Google Cloud went first by showing that under its enterprise-savvy new CEO, former Oracle exec Thomas Kurian, the company is no longer satisfied serving fellow cloud natives who spend more time reading Stack Exchange than the Financial Times, but is focused on C-level executives making strategic decisions as they adapt to a digitized, constantly-connected world. I highlighted how Google Cloud aims to stay relevant as AWS momentum plows on, writing,

Google has long been in the uncharacteristic position of an also-ran in the cloud services market, but it is in equally unfamiliar territory by not being able to brute-force/out-innovate its way to the top. In facing rivals like AWS and Microsoft, Google is in a battle of equals: not just technologically and financially, but in their will to win at virtually all costs.

Central to its strategy is exploiting the company’s expertise in containers to run both a new generation of microservice-based applications and legacy enterprise software. As I noted,

Many people, myself included, have long predicted that Google would use containers as the Trojan Horse to break down the walled gardens of other clouds, notably AWS. GKE, its CaaS product, and PKS, the product co-developed with Pivotal that provides a unified public-private CloudFoundry PaaS, provided an inkling of how containers could be used across deployment environments. At Next, Google introduced the culmination of its container-based grand unification theory: Anthos.

Anthos, which is an evolution of the Cloud Services Platform Google announced last year, provides a multi-cloud container environment based on Kubernetes (cluster management and workload orchestration) and Istio (service mesh).

While Google Cloud has previously touted its pivot to enterprise outreach, there’s a difference now as I wrote,

The message seems to have more teeth behind it this year with a new CEO familiar in the ways to CIO schmoozing and enterprise sales processes paired with its rounding out a hybrid infrastructure portfolio via Anthos and its various hardware and OSS partnerships.

Dell-EMC, along with its kissing cousin VMware, went next, seeking to offset potential long-term lethargy in its traditional business of enterprise hardware with a shiny new Dell Technologies Cloud. The company opened its toolbox and pieced together some Dell hardware and VMware software, finishing off with a coating of cloud services designed to metamorphose enterprise data centers into hybrid cloud locations optionally connected to backend cloud infrastructure and all managed by VMware. As I wrote in Dell-VMware beat the hybrid cloud drum,

Dell echoes a hybrid cloud theme we saw with Google earlier in April and AWS and Oracle last fall. Indeed, every major technology vendor has acknowledged the desires of cloud buyers, particularly in large enterprises, for the freedom and flexibility to run workloads on multiple environments, with the efficiency and simplicity of a consistent set of services, application and management interfaces and operations console.

Cloud governance is the next problem area

Infrastructure isn’t the only area of cloud ascension. As I detailed in Cloud ERP taking off but confusion persists around security and control topics, SaaS is also displacing traditional IT functions by delivering commonly used applications as a subscription service. However, outsourcing the infrastructure and applications doesn’t let IT off the hook for resource and user management and data security. Instead, as I detail in the column,  IT’s job is increasingly one of vendor selection, product integration and policy governance and control.

Service management was also the theme of another column, Taming the multi-cloud monster - organic adoption vs. bureaucratic control, which describes the maturation of enterprise cloud adoption as evidenced by a pair of user surveys. I note that

Enterprises increasingly treat cloud infrastructure as a strategic, mission-critical extension of traditional on-premises systems and are consequently concentrating on operational excellence, efficiency, governance, security and compliance.

The data shows cloud services following a typical pattern in which the rapid pace of technology adoption outpaces the necessary organizational controls. Now that these services have become vital components of enterprise operations, hosting data, and applications critical to many business processes, the focus shifts to management and security. However, as I caution,

The trick for enterprises is balancing the need for cloud controls and management with the convenience, speed and dynamism that drew users to cloud services in the first place. IT organizations shouldn’t load up the cloud with layers of bureaucracy and unnecessary limitations in the name of reducing costs or improving efficiency.

The mainstreaming of containers

As mentioned above regarding Google Cloud’s strategy, a meaningful aspect of the evolution of enterprise infrastructure to cloud services and technologies is containers, which are rapidly displacing virtual machines and cloud compute instances as the application platform of choice. Google and other developers of online services have long used containers as an efficient and flexible alternative to VMs, however, until recently the software required to build a complete container implementation was mostly a hodgepodge of open source projects that piecing together and maintaining could quickly become a developer’s part-time job.

The situation is improving as companies with companies packaging Kubernetes components into ready-to-use products. Consequently, 2019 has been noteworthy for the increasing use of containers outside the technology industry as detailed in my column Kubernetes is evolving into an enterprise-friendly platform, but challenges remain writing,

Fueled by a shift of application workloads from VMs to containers, Kubernetes has become a popular choice for automating and scaling container deployments. However, Kubernetes development so far has focused on the infrastructure internals and not the broader problem of streamlining application development and deployment. Fortunately, such insularity is waning as several PaaS stacks are adding Kubernetes clusters as a supported runtime destination, with the latest being enterprise favorite, Pivotal Cloud Foundry. The company’s move to integrate Cloud Foundry with Kubernetes is part of a larger trend in the evolution of the container orchestration platform into an enterprise-friendly environment.

Until recently, container development has beenby experts targeted for experts, leaving most IT executives in the dark about how the technology helps address their operational problems. That’s changing thanks to enterprise PaaS stacks that use containers like Cloud Foundry, Bluemix and others, but there’s much work left to do in making containers usable for a broader audience. As my column concluded,

Enterprises see the value of containers and Kubernetes, but need products and services that simplify the:

●     Development of containerized, cloud-native applications

●     Deployment of container infrastructure

●      and Management of container workloads and security policies

Recent developments are promising steps in the evolution of container infrastructure. The marriage of core container technology with PaaS frameworks and development methodologies will ultimately make Kubernetes and its ecosystem ripe for the average enterprise.

Serverless is another revolution in application development and deployment that has made its way to the enterprise. Popularized by cloud services like AWS Lambda and Azure Functions, functions-as-a-service (FaaS), aka serverless, is a compelling alternative to spinning up a full VM for many transient, event-driven workloads. However, it’s not feasible to implement entire applications as a collection of serverless functions, which makes the integration of serverless and container infrastructure so critical. As I described in Bringing serverless convenience to containers, many enterprises want an open, cross-platform alternative to proprietary cloud serverless services, writing that

A cleaner architectural approach [ to migrating raw code between cloud services] would combine the multi-platform portability of Kubernetes with the usage simplicity and deployment immediacy of serverless functions. Several recent announcements from Microsoft Azure and Red Hat, coupled with earlier work by Google and the broader container open source community are bringing serverless convenience to containers and enabling portable, multi-cloud application environments based on an ecosystem of containers and associated orchestration and service management-service mesh software.

The column goes on to detail work by Red Hat and Azure to create an enterprise container environment capable of running serverless nodes that is also compatible with Azure’s cloud container services. The technology is young, but full of potential. As I concluded,

FaaS is a perfect compliment to containers, not a replacement for them. Recent announcements show that Microsoft and Red Hat with KEDA along with Google, IBM, Red Hat and the rest of the Knative developer community are building a multi-cloud foundation for next-generation applications that bridge the world of container infrastructure and serverless FaaS; a platform that enterprise architects, developers and IT executives are wise to investigate thoroughly.

Security, outage incidents and implications

Migrating infrastructure and applications to cloud utilities means putting up with bane of every Florida homeowner during thunderstorm and hurricane season: outages. While no enterprise can match the sophistication, redundancy and resilience of the largest cloud operators, they’re not perfect and can’t prevent every service disruption. Few such incidents got more attention than one I covered in a Google Cloud outage caused much Twitter angst, but provides a teachable moment for enterprises and which knocked out both Google services like Gmail and major online properties like Snapchat that use Google infrastructure.

While disturbing at the time due to its rarity, in retrospect Google’s outages, along with previous ones at AWS and Azure can be mitigated through careful planning by enterprise cloud users. As I wrote,

Before jumping to a multi-cloud solution, it’s still easier to design multi-region redundancy into a single cloud deployment. …

“When deploying systems to the cloud, enterprises must carefully assess the trade off between reliability versus cost and complexity. Just as the systems on a manned spacecraft require far more redundancy than a passenger car, some applications are so critical to the business that avoiding even short periods of downtime can justify a much more elaborate cloud implementation.

No discussion of cloud adoption and enterprise usage would be complete without discussing the biggest concerns of most enterprise executives: security and data protection.

None was more disturbing than the most recent data theft at Capital One since it was perpetrated by an ex-AWS employee and exploited an organization with ample experience in using cloud infrastructure. As I detailed in The Capital One - AWS incident highlights the roles and responsibilities of cloud customers, providers, the event should disabuse cloud users of any notion that migrating infrastructure to AWS, Azure or Google Cloud means relating all responsibility for security to a third-party, no matter how deep their expertise.

The Capital One incident also underscored the fallacy of expecting hot new security technology of the kind continuously pitched to overwhelmed IT executives to solve all one’s security problems. As I discuss in Cloud security threats require improved IT collaboration, governance, not necessarily new technology, organizational structures that take security teams out of a ghetto of incident response and integrates security responsibilities across development and operational organizations is a more effective (and cheaper) way of preventing costly, embarrassing security incidents.

Significant improvements to security can also be had by adopting relatively simple authentication policies as I discuss in Basic security hygiene works wonders for protecting user accounts. Two-factor authentication techniques, whether using device-resident code generators or hardware security keys, are simple to use and implement and almost entirely effective at eliminating most compromises of user accounts. Longer-term, more granular techniques such as those detailed in Upping enterprise security with continuous authentication will provide added layers of security for an era of porous, deperimeterized enterprise networks.

Looking ahead

Most of these themes, particularly hybrid cloud, containerization and application security will likely be prominent in executive keynotes next week at VMworld and in future tech events this fall. Each vendor will claim the superiority and uniqueness of their products, however, competitive differences are usually on the margin. It’s more important to look for commonalities and how well each vendor plays with others. Standard and interoperable is better than better in the looming era of multi-cloud enterprise environments.

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