The infrastructure challenges of tomorrow

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IT infrastructure used to be relatively simple, even when it comprised mainframes that took up the entire floor of a building. Over the years, however, technology has evolved to the extent that even specialists have trouble keeping up with the dizzying array of network components and concepts, from software-defined networking to containerisation.

In the race to keep up with the latest developments in infrastructure, network managers and CIOs need help navigating the increasingly complex technological landscape.

It’s for this reason that O’Reilly conducted a series of in-depth interviews with senior technology leaders at a range of global businesses, from international newspapers like the New York Times, to major financial services businesses such as Capital One. We also spoke to experts at tech vendors like Microsoft and Slack, and compiled our findings in our Infrastructure Now 2018 report, which examines the key trends that will define infrastructure in the years ahead.

The full report is required reading for any network manager, but we’ve pulled together some highlights of what will shape the world of technology infrastructure in the months and years ahead.

An easier future?

Network technology vendors would have us believe the future of infrastructure will be characterised by greater simplicity, with technologies such as serverless computing, containerisation, and the growth of “software-as-a-service” offerings bringing easier management compared to today.

But will the future really be so easy? According to our interviewees,  businesses could struggle with what experts called a “spaghetti ball of interconnected microservices” where each new technological advance is rendered “legacy” from the moment it hits production.

Tech vendors are making great efforts to improve the ease and flexibility of infrastructure management, but organisations will still have to find a way to fit new technologies and services around their own legacy infrastructures, which, with rip-and-replace presenting such an enormous expense, promises to be a defining element of IT infrastructure for years to come.

A question of skills

Technology is just one side of the coin, however. A number of our experts pointed to the ongoing war for talent that sees many organisations struggling to acquire and retain the specialist talent needed to take network modernisation off the drawing board and put it into effect.

The rareness of the required talent for network infrastructure management was a common concern among our respondents, but a lack skills wasn’t the only worry: respondents also cited the importance of finding people with the right aptitude and potential, especially for large-scale projects. Businesses clearly want to invest in the next generation of technologists, but they are struggling to find people who are suited to the task. The war for talent has been a major theme of the last few years, and it appears it will continue.

Too much choice?

Isaac Newton said that if he had seen further than others, it was because he had been standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s the same with technology: every innovation provides the platform for yet more technologies that enrich our lives. At the same time, however, it also adds to the number of skills and techniques that infrastructure managers must master.

The result is a dizzying degree of competing products and service offerings, which make infrastructure decisions more complex. This issue was raised by several of our interviewees: while they welcome innovation, they also worry about the increased difficulty of decision making that results in success.

In light of this trend, one respondent raised a key point, which is the importance of keeping investments “reversible” where possible. In the rush to adopt centralised solutions, often this reversibility is the only control that network and infrastructure managers have as they struggle to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology landscape. There are a number of ways to ensure reversibility: for example, by using agile development practices, continuous integration and delivery, microservices, containerisation and vendor-managed open source services (like Kubernetes) that reduce lock-in, and thus give businesses more control over their commitments.

Making life simpler

We asked which future we could expect: one defined by ever-increasing simplicity, or one in which infrastructure managers have to contend with continued complexity.

Containerisation promises to have an important role to play in bringing greater simplicity within reach, since it enables cloud vendors to provide services that are abstracted away from complex infrastructure management and instead helps them to focus on building the software tools they need. This does, however, require new application architectures to ensure the same high levels of resilience – for example, by being able to tolerate servers going away at any moment for no reason.

In the short term, however, there is no magic bullet that will make infrastructure more simple. While investments in containerisation, serverless, and other technologies do promise a more manageable future, their mix with existing legacy technologies is adding to the complexity in the short term. As one interviewee noted, “infrastructure is now as dynamic as code and will only get more so”.

It seems that we will have to be patient, and wait for new technologies gradually to replace existing infrastructure technologies organically before we can enjoy the full fruits of today’s innovation. Those in search of a silver lining can find it in our respondents’ awareness of the challenges that businesses face in managing their IT infrastructures, and their stated desire to engineer solutions that make management simpler and more intuitive.

Andrew Odewahn is the CTO of O’Reilly Media
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