New possibilities require new thinking

(Image: Audi Sport)

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20 June 2016 | 0

Paul HearnsMuch has been said about the comment from Marc Andreessen that software is eating the world.

He may well be correct. The relentless march of software defined has meant that software control of almost anything is now possible, especially when combined with that other major mutation, the Internet of Everything.

A driving force within that ICT wave, is for enterprises to automate everything, and if something doesn’t suit that, make it self-service.

“Old attitudes, or perhaps old understandings of what software is and how it is developed, can lead some to view the concept of software defined everything, with all that automation and self-service enablement, as more trouble and cost than it is worth”

To many, this fills them with horror. Software is where bugs come from, points out Gregor Hohpe, author, commentator and chief IT architect, Allianz SE, characterising management attitudes to the prospect of SDn, where n equals anything, and the larger set of everything. The prospect of that lovely reliable infrastructure of storage, networking and servers suddenly being governed by the ‘code’ that is produced by developers and is continuously throwing up bugs and stack overflows and critical vulnerabilities, is chilling indeed. But is that perception justified?

It could be argued that this attitude stems from a misunderstanding of modern software development, with Hohpe making the point that ‘agile’ is often, in the minds of many of the old guard, synonymous with ‘haphazard’. Old attitudes, or perhaps old understandings of what software is and how it is developed, can lead some to view the concept of software defined everything, with all that automation and self-service enablement, as more trouble and cost than it is worth.

Despite the argument that we should always let machines do what they do best (rapid execution of repetitive task, even at massive scale), and let us squishy things do what we do best (being imaginative, creative and clever, and able to create machines to do stuff better, faster and bigger than we can), some still see this whole trend as too risky, based on past impressions of software and application development.

Another old chestnut would be that the world of software could learn a lot from the automotive industry about core capabilities, combined with reliability and usability. And, I for one, would tend to agree, albeit at a somewhat rarefied level.

Recently I had the privilege of being guided around a racetrack by talented and skilful instructors in one of the finest supercars currently available to mere mortals: the Audi R8 V10 Plus. This 10 cylinder, 5.2 litre mid-engined car weighs just 1610kg at the kerb, and puts out 610 hp and 560 Nm of torque. It can go from 0 – 100 km/h in a blistering 3.2 seconds, making it the fastest Audi production car.

Now, while I had plenty of experience on two wheels around the track in question, I had never been around it on four wheels, barring the time I had to do the lap of shame in the recovery truck with my bike ever so slightly worse for wear on a trailer out the back.

To be able to get into a such a vehicle and within the space of an hour or so of tuition, be able to push it to explore its performance is simply staggering.

The car was responsive, flexibly and accessible, even as it scrabbled for grip and responded to my often ham-fisted inputs.

Not only that, but it, and fleet of other high performance vehicles, spent the day in the hands of drivers of various skill levels, from numpty (me) to expert, without breaking, spinning or flipping. However, the nicely bobbled tyres, even on the car I drove, attested to the fact that they were working within their performance window.

The point of all of this is that the essential power and capability of the car was not blunted, obscured or undermined in anyway by the software controlling it all. In fact, I was protected from doing stupid things as the traction control, stability control and ABS gathered up my many mistakes, the car was protected from overheating, overrev’ing and over-driving and whoever provided insurance for the event was protected by the fact that all of this worked together to ensure no one ended up in a hedge.

But I, a novice who understands basically how cars work, was able to experience the essential character of a supercar without spending years learning to control the power and understand the craft.

As long as the technology vendors can keep up the same feat as Audi, making the highest levels of the technology available and usable to the technically informed, but not necessarily deeply skilled, then everyone will win. But, users will only win if they understand that all of that usability and capability must be understood for what it is — the power of a Google/Facebook/Amazon made available to them, for a monthly price based on resource usage. In the same way that I was fully cognisant of the fact that R8 is not a city hopper, users of these highly automated, carefully orchestrated systems need to view them as what they are, irrespective of their accessibility or ease of use.

By knowing the potential power and transformative effects of the systems, without the skewed views of legacy attitudes to software development, organisations can confidently embrace the world of software defined anything/everything, without fear of the bug-hunt paralysis of the past.

That is not to say of course, that the new generation of automated and software defined everything are perfect, or invulnerable. Certainly not, but by understanding how the new development methodologies work, especially in light of automation, where roll back and version control can allow mistakes to be far more easily identified, isolated and rectified, there are far less opportunities for disaster and long post-mortems to find answers.

So with all sides learning from the automotive example, what then for the organisations that dive in?

Studies from various quarters, not least of which is the Accenture Technology Vision series, show that businesses that embrace digital transformation, and at the heart of that is software defined, automation and self-service, perform better and are more profitable than peers that have not embraced digital transformation. And we all know what happens to organisations that fail to adapt to changing pressures in the environment — they become quaint posters of yesteryear amid lists of brand names that no longer exist or are mentioned in the same breath as carrier pigeon and dodo.

 

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