What I realized from studying AWS Services & APIs

[tl;dr The weakest link for firms wishing to achieve business agility is principally based around the financial and physical constraints imposed by managing datacenters and infrastructure. The business goals of agile, devops and enterprise architecture are fundamentally unachievable unless these constraints can be fully abstracted through software services.]

Background

Anybody who has grown up with technology with the PC generation (1985-2005) will have developed software with a fairly deep understanding of how the software worked from an OS/CPU, network, and storage perspective. Much of that generation would have had some formal education in the basics of computer science.

Initially, the PC generation did not have to worry about servers and infrastructure: software ran on PCs. As PCs became more networked, dedicated PCs to run ‘server’ software needed to be connected to the desktop PCs. And folks tasked with building software to run on the servers would also have to buy higher-spec PCs for server-side, install (network) operating systems, connect them to desktop PCs via LAN cables, install disk drives and databases, etc. This would all form part of the ‘waterfall’ project plan to deliver working software, and would all be rather predictable in timeframes.

As organizations added more and more business-critical, network-based software to their portfolios, organization structures were created for datacenter management, networking, infrastructure/server management, storage and database provisioning and operation, middleware management, etc, etc. A bit like the mainframe structures that preceded the PC generation, in fact.

Introducing Agile

And so we come to Agile. While Agile was principally motivated by the flexibility in GUI design offered by HTML (vs traditional GUI design) – basically allowing development teams to iterate rapidly over, and improve on, different implementations of UI – ‘Agile’ quickly became more ‘enterprise’ oriented, as planning and coordinating demand across multiple teams, both infrastructure and application development, was rapidly becoming a massive bottleneck.

It was, and is, widely recognized that these challenges are largely cultural – i.e., that if only teams understood how to collaborate and communicate, everything would be much better for everyone – all the way from the top down. And so a thriving industry exists in coaching firms how to ‘improve’ their culture – aka the ‘agile industrial machine’.

Unfortunately, it turns out there is no silver bullet: the real goal – organizational or business agility – has been elusive. Big organizations still expend vast amounts of time and resources doing small incremental change, most activity is involved in maintaining/supporting existing operations, and truly transformational activities which bring an organization’s full capabilities together for the benefit of the customer still do not succeed.

The Reality of Agile

The basic tenet behind Agile is the idea of cross-functional teams. However, it is obvious that most teams in organizations are unable to align themselves perfectly according to the demand they are receiving (i.e., the equivalent of providing a customer account manager), and even if they did, the number of participants in a typical agile ‘scrum’ or ‘scrum of scrums’ meeting would quickly exceed the consensus maximum of about 9 participants needed for a scrum to be successful.

So most agile teams resort to the only agile they know – i.e., developers, QA and maybe product owner and/or scrum-master participating in daily scrums. Every other dependency is managed as part of an overall program of work (with communication handled by a project/program manager), or through on-demand ‘tickets’ whereby teams can request a service from other teams.

The basic impact of this is that pre-planned work (resources) gets prioritized ahead of on-demand ‘tickets’ (excluding tickets relating to urgent operational issues), and so agile teams are forced to compromise the quality of their work (if they can proceed at all).

DevOps – Managing Infrastructure Dependencies

DevOps is a response to the widening communications/collaboration chasm between application development teams and infrastructure/operations teams in organizations. It recognizes that operational and infrastructural concerns are inherent characteristics of software, and software should not be designed without these concerns being first-class requirements along with product features/business requirements.

On the other hand, infrastructure/operations providers, being primarily concerned with stability, seek to offer a small number of efficient standardized services that they know they can support. Historically, infrastructure providers could only innovate and adapt as fast as hardware infrastructure could be procured, installed, supported and amortized – which is to say, innovation cycles measured in years.

In the meantime, application development teams are constantly pushing the boundaries of infrastructure – principally because most business needs can be realized in software, with sufficiently talented engineers, and those tasked with building software often assume that infrastructure can adapt as quickly.

Microservices – Managing AppDev Team to AppDev Team Dependencies

While DevOps is a response to friction in application development and infrastructure/operations engagement, microservices can be usefully seen as a response to how application development team can manage dependencies on each other.

In an ideal organization, an application development team can leverage/reuse capabilities provided by another team through their APIs, with minimum pre-planning and up-front communication. Teams would expose formal APIs with relevant documentation, and most engagement could be confined to service change requests from other teams and/or major business initiatives. Teams would not be required to test/deploy in lock-step with each other.

Such collaboration between teams would need to be formally recognized by business/product owners as part of the architecture of the platform – i.e., a degree of ‘mechanical sympathy’ is needed by those envisioning new business initiatives to know how best to leverage, and extend, software building blocks in the organization. This is best done by Product Management, who must steward the end-to-end business and data architecture of the organization or value-stream in partnership with business development and engineering.

Putting it all together

To date, most organizations have been fighting a losing battle. The desire to do agile and devops is strong, but the fundamental weakness in the chain is the ability for internal infrastructure providers and operators to move as fast as software development teams need them to – issues as much related to financial management as it is to managing physical buildings, hardware, etc.

What cloud providers are doing is creating software-level abstractions of infrastructure services, allowing the potential of agile, devops and microservices to begin to be realized in practice.

Understanding these services and abstractions is like re-learning the basic principles of Computer Science and Engineering – but through a ‘service’ lens. The same issues need to be addressed, the same technical challenges exist. Except now some aspects of those challenges no longer need to be solved by organizations (e.g., how to efficiently abstract infrastructure services at scale), and businesses can focus on the designing the infrastructure services that are matched with the needs of application developers (rather than a compromise).

Conclusion

The AWS Service Catalog and APIs is an extraordinary achievement (as is similar work by other cloud providers, although they have yet to achieve the catalog breadth that AWS has). Architects need to know and understand these service abstractions and focus on matching application needs with business needs, and can worry less about the traditional constraints infrastructure organizations have had to work with.

In many respects, the variations between these abstractions across providers will vary only in syntax and features. Ultimately (probably at least 10 years from now) all commodity services will converge, or be available through efficient ‘cross-plane’ solutions which abstract providers. So that is why I am choosing to ‘go deep’ on the AWS APIs. This is, in my opinion, the most concrete starting point to helping firms achieve ‘agile’ nirvana.

What I realized from studying AWS Services & APIs

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