Guest Column | September 18, 2017

Software's Only Constant: Disruption

By Margaret Dawson, Vice President, Global Product Marketing, Red Hat

Margaret Dawson, Vice President, Global Product Marketing, Red Hat

What I tell IT and business leaders every day is that disruption to your business is a matter of when, not if. So, act as if you are being disrupted now.

In the software world, “disruption” has become one of the most well-worn marketing phrases, to the point where it’s almost laughable to use it as something other than a punchline. But laugh all we want, disruption is still happening. It didn’t stop with the cloud; it didn’t stop with consumerization of IT; and it’s not stopping after all the innovations of today.

Really, this is one of the few constants in our industry - things are going to change, they’re going to change fast and you need to adapt or you’ll be in a world of pain. And today, that change is moving faster than ever before.

From Red Hat’s point of view, disruption is an evolutionary trait of modern technology, and it starts with open source. Open source projects and communities, the wellspring of many modern technology innovations, are ever-changing, functioning as the leading edge of IT to make applications, services and systems smarter and faster. But for the most part, these communities are only focused on going forward - stabilizing and supporting previous technology iterations is typically not something in their respective scopes.

Look, for example, at the Fedora Project, a Red Hat-sponsored community that develops the Fedora operating system, one of the broadest Linux distributions available. Fedora versions hit end of life after a calendar year, roughly; that’s barely a blip in the long view of most software companies (or for nearly all enterprise IT departments). This is the kind of disruption that we face - a constant wave of innovative code, but one that appears uncaring or unthinking to the needs of our customers.

But it’s not really that bleak of a picture. Disruption, and the innovation fueling it, is what drives digital transformation, essentially the mandate for companies of all shapes, sizes and industry to become more software-centric, and this is great news for the software industry. We just need to understand how to handle it, and that requires a few changes to our mode of thinking.

What I tell IT and business leaders every day is that disruption to your business is a matter of when, not if. So, act as if you are being disrupted now. What would you do differently right now if you were being disrupted? 

Everything. Is. Open.

This sounds like a sales pitch coming from an open source company, but it’s the cold hard truth: The software world is all about open source now. You only have to look at the change of heart by previously proprietary giants Microsoft and Oracle to see how open source is defining the enterprise software world. In fact, if you look at any start-up or incumbent that has disrupted an industry or a market, chances are open source technology is under the hood.

Your developers and engineers need to embrace this concept and start to integrate with the relevant communities, and odds are, they already have (whether you know it or not). But open source is more than just taking free code and baking it into your products.

The value of open source comes from contributing code back to a community, encouraging them to break it (and make it better in the process) and then contributing the *better* code back again. Open source powers the Internet, the space shuttle, and the bulk of the world’s financial platforms - it’ll do wonders to power your products too.

Using open source doesn’t mean you have to disrupt your own development or overall IT processes. You can leverage the innovation open source brings but do it in a stable, supported, reliable way.

Break the monolith

The traditional style of software, one of monolithic applications and systems, is all but gone. Those are legacy builds now - enterprises want to embrace agility and nimbleness to address the ever-fickle needs of their end users, and that means software that can turn on a dime. To do this, we need to deliver solutions that can adapt as quickly as needs change.

This means understanding cloud services and platforms, like AWS and Azure, and the capabilities posed by Linux containers and microservices. Digitally-transforming companies are increasingly looking to a combination of the above to deliver composite applications (applications built from a host of smaller, simpler applications) on distributed architecture.

Disruption has broken the application stack into its base components, and users want to be able to put them back together in whatever way they see fit - this is the new application reality that we need to understand and build solutions around.

There’s only one speed: Faster.

From DevOps to automation to serverless computing, speed is critical to our customers, so it's critical to us as an industry. Increasingly, we’re seeing systems and solutions that take months or years to stand up get the cold shoulder from the datacenter. Nimbler technologies are taking center stage, especially ones that cut down on complexity across all levels, but fast doesn’t mean “cut corners.”

Take automation, for example - a recent global outage at one of the world’s biggest public cloud providers was caused by a simple user error, essentially putting a 1 instead of a 0 in a value box. That’s a generalization, but it gets the point across: We need to go fast, but we can’t be sloppy. Automation takes the human factor out of complex-but-rote activities, allowing developers and engineers to focus on value delivery and innovation instead of “janitorial duties.” Customers want their solutions now, they want them easy to be easy to use and they want them to work as they should; thanks to disruption, we can actually DO this.

Static is dead air

You can’t outrun or hide from disruption, especially not in the software world. The days of the mainframe and the expensive beige box is long gone, but it’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities to deliver solutions faster and to expand more efficiently into specialized lines of business. Don’t fight disruption. Embrace it and the technologies and processes that drive it. And perhaps you will be the disruptor yourself.

About the Author

A 20-year tech industry veteran, Margaret Dawson is a frequent author and speaker on cloud computing, big data, open source, women in tech, and the intersection of business and technology. She is a proven entrepreneur and intrapreneur, having led successful initiatives and teams at several startups and Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and HPE.  Currently, Margaret leads global product marketing at Red Hat, the world’s leading open source software company.  Prior to Red Hat, she was Vice President of Product Marketing and Cloud Evangelist for the cloud computing division of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. Margaret has worked and traveled extensively in Asia, Europe, and North America. She was a foreign correspondent for BusinessWeek magazine, and spent ten years in the Greater China region, consulting with many technology companies and governmental agencies.