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Embracing digital transformation with containerisation and Kubernetes

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

While digital transformation is creating new business opportunities, it is also bringing a host of challenges and technological barriers with its wave of progress. With changes ongoing and always around the corner, organisations are having to re-evaluate how they can modernise their often-out-dated digital infrastructure in order to keep up. Is there any way to make the transition simpler?

Enter Kubernetes. The word is taken from ancient Greek, where it translates as ‘helmsman’ or ‘pilot’. So, it makes sense that your IT business strategy can be guided, not through the Aegean, but through the waters of digital transformation towards stability and efficiency. What began life as Google’s original open source container-orchestration system, has now paved the way for a reliable precedent to automating, controlling and extending modern IT applications.

Things change, tech moves on

Before the invention of mainframes and client servers, it was a challenge to build services together to make a reliable, client-friendly solution, and a profit, at the same time. Back in the days of UNIX, vendors would need to spend millions to create one overarching solution, using large numbers of skilled workers (installers, operators). Google tried putting together its own compute cloud to offer toolsets to manage thousands of customers; Amazon did the same. However, the solution proved tricky and expensive, with neither having enough developer experts to execute the job well.

This is all because the job wasn’t straightforward. It’s easy to add another virtual machine (VM) to your architecture, but it isn’t a speedy or flexible solution. Google’s move to open source enabled it to access a large, distributed community of skilled IT experts to help build and test its management system - which proved to be the perfect environment for professional troubleshooting.

So, what does this mean for my business?

The containerisation model is, as Kubernetes’ names suggests, the steering wheel that simplifies any CTO or CIO’s life. With a container-orchestration system, you have the ability to scale your applications up and down, according to business activity and performance, making your systems work with you, not just for you. Nobody wants their system to sit around burning money and resources when it isn’t being used.

Kubernetes and other container platform management solutions exist to set out rules of control. Where previously it was difficult for developers to alter applications to reflect business - while operators ran software easily - the digital transformation in enterprise software management is ensuring greater ease and efficiency for all users. Businesses can ensure they benefit from this technology by embracing containerisation developments; giving another layer of flexibility to their operations.

Too good to be true?

This does not mean to say that container platforms are the one and only solution to every application; you should not, for example, be dropping large relational databases into a container just because you can. A large database server would be more appropriate. It is up to IT professionals to make the right decisions relating to levels, structures and licensing. However, the two most important rules you should remember are that everything should have the capability to support Kubernetes, and that a business holds ownership of all architecture.

The Platform as a Service (PaaS) model, in contrast to the slightly outdated Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), enables users to install a management platform and begin use almost immediately. This means you no longer have to worry about the networking below. What you should be aware of, however, is that all providers have their own cloud service. It becomes inefficient when users have a ‘technical lock-in’ and are stuck with services from a particular vendor. Digital transformation is allowing the move towards efficient, flexible solutions where users can take control without being locked in.

Owning your architecture mitigates this problem.

Keeping up with digital transformation means retaining (and in some cases, gaining) control of your business IT systems. When a business owns its architecture it can choose to use the relevant services for the right tasks and applications. And when a business uses a Kubernetes-based management system, it can jump between any platform, from smaller options like UKCloud and UKFast, to the hyper-converged Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

In this way, software developers are elevated to strategic decision-makers. A simplified approach like Kubernetes means increased capabilities for expansion, retraction, patching, catalogues of use and devops support...and therefore greater capacity to focus on what makes sense to the business.

Theory into practice: what are the key signs that your IT strategy needs a refresh?

It’s easy to let your IT servers tick slowly towards antiquity - in the tech world, this only refers to 20 years ago. However, a disciplined approach to patching and applications will save you time, effort and IT complications, as well as uncovering the wonders of digital transformation. Cobbled together ‘Frankenstein’ setups are simply not practical in the modern digital era. Key signs that your IT software needs a revamp are:

  • The database server hasn’t been patched since pre-2000
  • You haven’t looked at an application for 10-15 years, and just let it run
  • Your staff don’t know how to containerise
  • The combination of vendors you use are no longer in support or no longer exist
  • Your applications no longer run on your vendor environment
  • You are no longer in the support matrix (which can renew after only 2-3 years)

Moving to a container-based strategy is the best way to enable smooth processes. While often a customer might assume a ‘cloud-first’, ‘cloud-only’ policy and dump all applications into one large cloud vendor for ease, the move will be counterintuitive if in a couple of years they decide to move. It is necessary to have an expert with the skills to take the applications down or move them across. This makes the need to focus on and fund employee development very important, especially as those IT professionals familiar with old languages like Cobalt become more rare.

Updating your digital strategy will also ensure greater security. Instead of the long and complicated process of installing independent software vendors, management platforms enable a streamlined installation on applications. As there is less collateral needed during installation, there is less to attack, and therefore applications become smaller targets of vulnerability. Similarly, the framework is easy to maintain: if something goes wrong, it is possible to destroy an affected container rather than a whole server, move between containers, or take a patch off.

Taking note

In order to embrace digital transformation and take advantage of benefits like container management systems, IT professionals must be able to transform and integrate applications. It isn’t enough to put a plaster over a legacy application that used to be on UNIX, when actually it needs a full rewrite into accessible, market-current language.

The IT industry itself is in need of more skilled workers who have the ability to take old applications and integrate into newer versions, so it is important to keep your systems up-to-date. As ‘long-term’ strategy in the IT world refers to the next three to five years, it is necessary to be mindful of IT structural changes, in order not to be left stranded at sea. And above all, by owning your architecture, jumping from ship to ship and vendor to vendor will be much more straightforward in the future.

Adrian Keward, Chief Technologist for UK Public Sector, Red Hat