The issue of modality, and its relevance as a marker that the user community should identify with in measuring where they stand in their ways of running their businesses and meeting their customers’ needs, came up again in a recent conversation I had with Adrian Keward, Red Hat’s Chief Technologist.
The fundamental issue here is whether a technology-related, infrastructural definition, such as bi-modal operations, is particularly useful or relevant in helping businesses achieve their goal of effectively getting to the cash they need.
Whether a business still uses on-premise, legacy resources or bleeding-edge cloud services - and whether they mix and match them as needed or maintain a strict religious divide between the two - are just means to an end of (hopefully) serving the needs of as many customers as possible well enough that they want to come back for more.
For Keward, the balance of his work is currently skewed towards the needs of the public sector, but even here developments in commercial best practice are becoming key drivers for users in public sector organizations, and national and local government. And here modalities count for little:
When talking to central or local government, they actually are really interested to know what the commercial space, private companies, do and how they see the same problem because they want to learn from them. I suppose the only difference comes in terms of how eager they are to listen. Even in the smallest department - systems administrator onwards - the thing they want to really do is to share their information and the experiences they’ve got.
This camp? That camp? Or don’t go camping?
Keward shares the view that there is no benefit to any organization, be it public sector one or commercial, in not sharing views and aspirations in the area of how the infrastructure of an organization is constructed. Having one or two fixed 'modality camps' into which businesses should fall is now irrelevant and misleading, which is where the notion of all businesses being on a spectrum of infinitely variable modality came from.
The danger is that companies – both vendors and users – end up feeling they have to be in one type of modality or the other. The worst thing that could possibly happen to them is they then feel they fall between the stools of modalities and are therefore in some way 'doomed':
Actually, if you think about it, everybody comes from different paths - I totally agree that there's a spectrum. if you’re commercial, if you’re public sector, be it big or small, everyone's going to fit somewhere. What we want is for everyone to understand the decisions that they come to make and make the best decisions based on their customer, their product, their service, their citizen solution - whatever it might be. That's the goal.
Commercial companies are taking the lead in this approach though the public sector is catching up fast. In Keward’s experience, the attitude of the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) has changed significantly over the last year. There used to be little interest in the idea of providing support for changes users and service providers wanted to make. Instead, they were left to take people on board to do it.
But now they are starting to talk about it, and the ways that it can be achieved based on the information and resources the businesses have. They are also talking about what other resources may then be required, particularly in the realm of open standards, Keward notes:
We totally believe that open standards are the way to open up and make sure that people can share and access data. And of course, from our point of view, the most important thing to prove is that is it open source that drives open standards. But that doesn't mean if you’re not in the open source world that you still can't compete and work with open standards. Absolutely you can, you just have to comply with the standards that everybody else is using.
If you're a commercial company are you so worried about open standards? You might think you're not, but the reality is that if you don’t want to spend the millions you might have done on integration projects - as you would’ve done in the 90s - then having a set of standards will allow you to buy whatever application of service you want. You can bolt them together and they’ll work, and you can guarantee they’ll work because you can see the code, you can see how other people have done it. Then openness is something that drives innovation and it doesn't matter who the end user is, whether it is government or commercial. Innovation will thrive.
What is then perhaps most important is that the innovation will have moved on from technology issues – and in particular finding ways of getting disparate applications and services to collaborate – and on to the development of new, value-add business processes and services. Here, Keward sees the emergence of increasingly rich Platforms as a Service as a key driver of such innovation.
For example, he talks of systems integrator Atos and its Canopy Digital Connect service. Aimed at civil service needs, this is a service that allows Atos to charge for delivering secure messages between any departments, using totally open, but totally secure technology. In practice, however, this is built on Red Hat’s JBoss Fuse lightweight integration platform, which itself is a development from the open Source Apache Camel project:
We provide the commercial 365 support that they need in order to provide a mission critical service. And if that involves getting benefit information, or housing benefit, that's a critical service for people looking to get their money.
The key factor with open systems and open source, in his view, is that it prevents vendors adopting the `secret sauce’ approach to their products. And while Red Hat still see itself very much as a products-based business it is keen to build out as much upstream community around those products as possible.
It is the idea of building out that Platform as a Service as a community which is the lynchpin for all developments and acquisitions. For example, last year the company acquired 3Scale for its API management technology, and is now in the process of open sourcing it so it can be a full part in the community ecosystem.
The same approach of making richer services available to the community as part of the Platform as a Service is true for the OpenShift Container Platform, which is compatible with the Docker ecosystem and Kubernetes orchestration tools.
Business as a Service
Keward is also observing the beginnings of the next phase in the development of platforms, and one sector starting to drive this is the Public Sector.
The Red Hat platform already offers all the infrastructure services required, together with a growing range of application development/management tools and generalised support tools for making such a platform work. But the next level of abstraction is the platform that targets the specific needs of an industrial sector.
The public sector already has several potential opportunities here, such as local councils having enough similarities, not just in the way that they work, but also in the applications that they use and the service provision issues that they face, so a common platform for all would make real sense, argues Keward:
In the long term I would love to have local authorities, LEAs and the like coming together and looking at services and consolidating bits that they can. That’s not getting rid of people, it’s just looking at data and deciding who's the best owner, manager, controller or updater of that data. So I do think something as a service would definitely fall in that park and yes it needs to sit on something. Platform as a Service is a good option. We're seeing a lot more pick up and requirement for that Platform as a Service.”
It fits well with geography as well. A series of local authorities that are geographically close together can start sharing resources and applications and, as Keward observes, make far better use of them as a 'Local Authority as a Service’:
The main question then is who actually runs that? Does it make sense for them to do it themselves in a datacentre, or does it make sense for them to put it onto one of the big private or public cloud providers? Potentially, they could also use a service like UKCloud's. That basically takes a lot of these components we’ve already talked about and puts them together as a wrap or as a service that makes it easy for them to consume.
He also sees this model expanding as the granularity of microservices advances. This also plays to the growing role of the community, which will inevitably fill up with specialist SMEs looking to fill the need for these microservices. Increasing granularity will expand the richness of the connections and integrations possible when orchestrating bigger systems.
With a standardised environment, modules from different software houses and different MSPs can be pulled together to create very specific services. And unlike with a traditional, unified system which gets updated once every three years, if an error is found it’s only in one module, and because they’re very tightly defined it is very easy to identify the issue and modify it - rewrite it completely if necessary - and make it work.
At this point the concept of bi-modal, tri-modal, uni-modal or anything else becomes irrelevant because the modality is infinite and focussed on meeting business goals.
The number of technology vendors demonstrating they understand that increasing standardisation and commoditisation is a `good thing’ continues to grow, and as Red Hat’s Keward shows, their role now is to provide the foundations for the next wave of innovation where the wonders of technology are no longer `the story’.