Open source cloud drives Volkswagen's DevOps culture transformation

Maxwell Cooter Profile picture for user maxcooter April 14, 2016
The German automotive manufacturer has rolled out Mirantis OpenStack cloud as it pursues agility in an uncertain car market.

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The car used to be one of the status symbols of the age, your first car a rite of passage. Such was the state of vehicular worship. French cultural commentator Roland Barthes said:

The motor car is almost the exact equivalent of the gothic cathedral.

That’s no longer the case. While there have been recent recoveries in car sales following the economic slump, there are still  bumps in the road. The arrival of taxi-like companies, such as  Uber and Lyft, car club companies, like Zipcar, and car-sharing firms, like BlaBlaCar, has meant that it’s now become economically viable to ditch car ownership.

If you throw in the attempts by various cities to limit driving, the arrival of Tesla’s electric model and the appearance of Google’s driverless car, then these are uncertain times for automotive manufacturers.

Volkswagen, in particular, has been feeling the heat. Following the emissions scandal of last year, it suffered a drop in sales. However, there was even more of a concern that the company was lagging behind competitors in the adoption of new technologies. The market was changing fast and that it was time to look at new ways of working.

That was one of the drivers behind the decision by the German company to move to the cloud and a more Agile approach to software development.

Volkswagen plumped for an OpenStack-based private cloud to kick-start its new approach and, after a shoot-off between Mirantis and Red Hat, the company opted for the former.

There’s a long road ahead. The move to cloud, to DevOps and Agile development will mean a radical change in business culture. But, according to Marque Teegardin, Mirantis’s senior vice president, Volkswagen knew it had to do something radical:

A lot of companies are scared of what Tesla did – they had to become more agile. The system they had was really manual and took hundreds of days to make changes. They felt they didn’t have a choice to something more agile – it’s what people are calling the Uberization of IT.

Having made the choice to go down the cloud route, Mario Mueller, Volkswagen’s VP for IT infrastructure, says:

No single proprietary vendor, over time, will be able to keep up with the innovation cycles of OpenStack’s open source development model. We think this approach not only removes any vendor risk for VW, it also lets us take advantage of new developments in cloud computing faster as those advances will be quickly absorbed into OpenStack or created within OpenStack.

The new private cloud infrastructure is coming in three phases, says Mueller:

Phase one was to have the first version of the cloud (IaaS) complete by December, 2015. Phase two and three will be finished by July, 2016 with enhancements to IaaS, hybrid version of IaaS and our first PaaS implementation including CI/CD toolchain.

One of the three clouds built right now is for testing new websites. The company is currently overhauling its web presence and is set to reveal a new site later this year.

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But it’s not just the web. This initiative is  ultimately going to be delivering applications across a single, global cloud-based network and no aspect of the company will be untouched.

The company isn't revealing much on timing details however. Volkawagen has a large SAP presence, for example, and the company won’t comment on how much of that will be ported to cloud or when. But it is known that. at some point, it will be replaced. Mueller says:

We are not looking to rip-and-replace existing infrastructure, but rather to surround-and-drown it over time. As Group Cloud moves forward, we expect all net new applications across all 12 VW brands will be developed and run on the new OpenStack cloud, eventually replacing legacy systems.

A key element to the OpenStack rollout is the move to agile development. It’s something that had to be undertaken to improve software delivery. Mueller says:

The target audience is administrators and technical competence centers across all VW brands. The cloud will be used to develop and host all of VW next gen applications across all business units, including applications related to VW websites across various brands, connected car applications and big data workloads.

Looking from the outside, Mirantis’s Teegardin argues that the car manufacturer is undergoing a massive cultural shift. Volkswagen's practice had been to over-engineer everything, meaning that projects would take a long time to complete. Agile development is going to change everything, he suggests:

They want to introduce a real DevOps culture of fail often, but try new things.

What drives Volkswagen forward is the realisation that it can’t stand still in a world where so much is changing. As Teegardin points out:

We’re all mobile now and the car becomes another example of that. Your car can track where you’re going and by doing so captures a tremendous amount of data. By doing so, it learns about you and offers opportunities for direct advertising, from your favourite restaurants for example.

This is where the vision gets into murkier waters. The idea of a connected car offering commercial opportunities is an attractive one, but it’s one that could run into difficulties in Volkswagen’s native country. Germany has Europe’s strictest privacy laws and it’s not clear how gathering this level of information will sit with those laws.

This is a question that, for now, Volkswagen won’t answer.

My take

Volkswagen has certainly recognized that its old methodologies aren’t going to cut it in the 21st century as the car reinvents itself. It’s going to take more than implementing cloud however to do this, there’s a need for a fundamental culture shift as the workforce adopts new practices. In a way, the technology is the easy part, with  the harder part still to come.

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