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CIO podcast: Serverless helps CIOs manage peak demands




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By Mark Chillingworth

Applications run business processes and servers run application, that has been the way for organisations for some time and owning, operating and lately paying for a server estate has been part and parcel of a CIO’s role. But now CIOs have a choice, they can decide to be serverless and this week’s Horizon Business Innovation podcast brought two CIOs together that have adopted serverless as well as Anna Doubkova, now a senior engineer with fast food store Pizza Hut, but with digital design specialists Red Badger at the time of the recording.

Last winter the highly respected technology journalist David Tebbut explained serverless to the UK’s CIO community here on Horizon as:

“What serverless really means is ‘not on your server’.

“You could argue that all cloud activity and third party hosting is serverless by that definition. What separates this Serverless from other hosted activity is that it generally means small, stateless, event-driven chunks of code that complete their execution in seconds, or less. A fresh instance is fired up by each event, meaning that it readily scales to huge volumes of parallel activity. The triggering event might be a change in a database, a button click by a website user, a request from a computer application or a message from an IoT device, for example.” You can read David Tebbutt’s full explanation at (http://www.horizonbusinessinnovation.com/can-serverless-infrastructure-increase-the-speed-to-market/)

Mark Bramwell has been CIO of Oxford University Said Business School since March 2015 having joined the newest college in  the famed university city from the world’s leading medical research charity the Wellcome Trust. At Wellcome Bramwell had led IT since 2006, prior to that he had been part of the technology leadership team at retailer WH Smith.

“Things are becoming increasingly global with China, India and Europe and the ability to move services onto a server was becoming prohibitive, so we decided to look at serverless as a native cloud platform that would allow us to put things close to the customer,”

“My role is to be accountable to the school and students, we have 500 staff, 1300 students, 120 global clients and we try and deliver technology as part of a world class business school,” Bramwell says of his role.

Joining Bramwell in the serverless debate was Kevin Evans, CIO with Sun Branding Solutions an agency that provides brand and packing services to retailers and the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) market. Evans returned to Sun Branding in 2015 having been with the Leeds headquartered business for two years before.

“We are a 123 year old company and we do everything from idea to a product that goes to print and my role is global infrastructure and migrating our co-location services to an online platform-as-a-service (PaaS) system,” Evans says of his role in Yorkshire.

Doubkova was serving retail clients like Fortnum and Mason and Tesco at Shoreditch agency Red Badger and is now in the retail world of convenience food.  All three adopted serverless technology to manage spikes in activity which have a significant impact on their businesses and their customers.

“The biggest thing is our clients, who have a Christmas spike that starts in September and there is an Easter spike and all the spikes happen at the same time for all our clients for the same reasons,” Evans says of the retail demands placed on Sun Branding Solutions.  “Things are becoming increasingly global with China, India and Europe and the ability to move services onto a server was becoming prohibitive, so we decided to look at serverless as a native cloud platform that would allow us to put things close to the customer,” Evans adds.

“It was important for us to enable clients to manage the spike without having to manually manage that. Some clients do not have the ability to manage their infrastructure,” Doubkova says of how serverless has helped customers deal with sudden demands.

“We had a different driver,” Bramwell says. “I inherited a on-premise estate with no resilience and backup, so it was a case of rip it up and start again; so we took the approach to look to outsourcing all on-premise infrastructure,” serverless was part of Bramwell’s new estate and it has delivered the resilience improvements the CIO needed.  Evans too reports that resilience has increased for the marketing business and most importantly more agility in the business.

“With serverless you can configure your code and infrastructure code at the same time and that changes the game quite a lot,”

Does less mean more?

So what does serverless mean to our trio of business technology leaders and their organisations? For Said Business School’s Bramwell it has enabled the Oxfordshire organisation redeploy its technologists to provide increased value to the students and staff of the organisation. Evans agrees: “We have taken people that were 80% housekeeping and 20% value add, but not we have changed that to 90% value add.”

Engineer Doubkova says serverless enables a technology oriented company like Red Badger to truly become a DevOps business.  As a member of Red Badger at the time of the podcast recording Doubkova says: “We don’t believe in frontend and backend developers and infrastructure people; we do the whole thing and we are obviously trying to advocate that for our clients, but often they want an infrastructure team and that is understandable. If you want to free your operations teams to be developers then you need to bring your developers up to be able to do operations as well. It is a trade off both way,” she says.  

“With serverless you can configure your code and infrastructure code at the same time and that changes the game quite a lot,” she adds.

Evans tells the podcast that as a CIO it is a change in the way you work as he has multiple cloud instances: “We don’t know where they are at any given time and that is both terrifying and exciting at the same time. We also have database instances that move between Amsterdam and Dublin.”

Early adopters of serverless technology are often, but not always, using the technology as they have event driven needs. Doubkova says these events can be either long or short lived and the engineer says she has developed and deployed Amazon Lambda functions driven by events.

Bramwell says serverless about the flexibility it gives a CIO, Said Business school has been able to innovate services knowing the Bramwell’s team can spin up a service quickly. “If it works we can scale it up, if it doesn’t we can ditch it,” he says.

Evans agrees: “Everything is event driven, it is your definition of an event.  For retailers they have an events that are almost continual then there are special events.” Like Bramwell it is the flexibility that helps Evans: “The time scale means we can respond in milliseconds.” The Sun Branding Solutions CIO adds that not only does he have the ability to add performance to his business, but he also gains skills that a marketing business would not normally have access to. “At Microsoft there are people with PHDs that focus on cyber security, traffic management and load balancing and we get all of that for nothing as part of our agreement,” he says of the relationship Sun Branding has with Microsoft.  

“Software defined networking kicked around for a while, there were lots of buzz words, now we have moved past that now and it is software defined everything,” Evans says of how serverless enables a different way of operating a technology estate. “I can use Powershell (a task automation and configuration management framework from Microsoft) and spin up instances that respond automatically to a load and automatically respond to users and will pick up a message that will take a restful call from the SAP system somewhere and I don’t have to worry about any of that.  It has fundamentally changed the way we deploy as the deployment is more about release management rather than deployment. So it has changed the dev and infrastructure functions, so we have a DevOps function it has changed everything,” he says.

Bramwell has had the same experience in Oxford: “We are in agile deployment with projects in a lifecycle with agile proof of concept and release and that scalability of serverless enables us to try things and fail quickly and if they fail we can quickly switch them off and move on. If they succeed, which they hope they do we can scale them up and out with a certainty of cost and delivery.”

In a container

Serverless is not to be confused with container technologies like Docker, though there are some similarities in what they deliver to the business.  In the coming weeks a leading enterprise architect and innovation leaders will discuss container technologies on a podcast.

Evans says containers and to a degree serverless is about the utility computing agenda that cloud computing began. “It is no different, we are reliant on an electricity, connectivity and water supplier, no business exists with total independence any more it is about managing those dependencies.”

“The changing face of technology architecture means that things are far more portable than they were before, so go into things with your eyes open and be clear what you are buying and also what you are not buying, then you can be really clear about what your exit terms are,” Mark Bramwell says of any risks of vendor lock in from selecting one the main serverless platforms from Amazon, Google or Microsoft.  “It is a nuance on vendor management and it is a bit of a total shift as organisations become more and more dependent on partners. As a CIO that is good for releasing capability but also as a CIO your success is dependent on an engineer that you cannot put a face to, so it takes a significant shift in confidence to be able to sleep comfortably at night.”

“It boils down to having the right governance, service architecture and supplier performance metrics,” Bramwell adds to the change in supplier management that serverless requires. “You need a very different skill set in your team, one that is about design, QA and service management rather than the roll your sleeves up and build and commission a server.”

The Horizon Business Innovation podcast is an Icon Business Media production

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