Radical Simplification

Radical Simplification of Technology Infrastructure

An interview with Kumud Kalia, CIO, Akamai Technologies

Why do enterprises need to simplify their technology infrastructures?

Companies need to transform themselves faster than ever because disruptive change has become the new normal. This acceleration of business change, always having to move faster, is a business truism. But it’s nonetheless real, and IT teams have to deal with it. What I see happening today is more companies tripping over themselves trying to change, and the IT infrastructures that enable the current business configurations create obstacles.

Our organizations have legacies of infrastructure and applications built over decades, and built more for stability than agility. It’s an old story, but the problems are coming home to roost in an era of rapid digitization of business operations and customer experiences. We need a simpler, more lightweight paradigm for technology infrastructure to enable digital business.

What do you mean by “lightweight”?

Take the basic example of core computing. Flexible capacity is available in the cloud on demand at reasonable and metered cost. So why are companies still buying servers to dedicate to specific applications and databases? Why are they spending on physical infrastructure when virtual and for-hire infrastructure can reduce footprint and cost? The answer is that we keep doing what’s familiar and seems safe. And in the process spending more money than we need to spend, and committing time to extraneous activity — which is an opportunity cost. That’s why we use so many SaaS apps — easier to deploy, manage and support — and most importantly, quicker to implement.

If I were a venture capitalist, I wouldn’t invest in a startup that wasn’t taking a lightweight approach to infrastructure and wasn’t developing its applications in the cloud. I’d want to fund rapid innovation, not fund old-style technology stacks that slow things down or cost more.

What can a company with more lightweight infrastructure do differently?

It can be more agile, and that starts with rapid business experimentation. What’s the best and fastest way to get a new product to market or re-engineer a business process? It doesn’t start with a lengthy design phase ending in one go/no-go decision. Rather, it involves rapid prototypes and field tests and feedback. Determine what works, scale it up, and refine it along the way. That requires lighter-weight and on-demand DevOps and computing environments, but also more engaged business leaders and devolved decision making — the technology is at the heart of it, but isn’t enough on its own.

The high water marks are the online companies, the Expedias and Amazons, that are continuously experimenting with the customer experience on their websites. They do hundreds of experiments a day. But the purpose isn’t to pick one idea of 100 that worked, so we failed 99 times. They don’t even use that language. They see the whole process as constant learning and adapting — it’s Darwinism, just much faster.

That’s the new way of doing business change, especially if you’re doing business online. But the opportunities to help drive agility through simpler and more agile infrastructure are available to all companies.

What’s in the way of seizing the opportunities?

Inertia and timidity. People keep doing things the way they know how until somebody comes along to disrupt them and force them to change. That’s the case with products, markets, processes, and technology. But the management mantra these days says, “Disrupt yourself. Don’t wait for somebody else to come eat your lunch.” That also applies to infrastructure. Disrupt your infrastructure and let your enterprise embrace new ways of working and changing. The technologies are there. The tools are there. The skills are available. Why wait?

How are you going about the radical simplification of infrastructure at Akamai?

It doesn’t start with technology. We start with employee experience. How do we make the employee’s experience of interacting with technology as frictionless as possible? What are the points of friction, and how can we eliminate them? So here are some of the ways we’re simplifying.

Passwords. Login credentials are a source of friction, especially when you can’t remember too many passwords. So we’re eliminating passwords in favor of automated multi-factor authentication. You need a known device and a uniquely generated token. Employees don’t have to remember passwords, and so they don’t have passwords to inadvertently leak. We’re rolling this across the enterprise, right now.

Of course, most external websites and apps still require passwords — as long as passwords are not being reused, then breaches in third-party applications won’t damage anything else. This is why we also provide a password vault to all employees to generate, secure, and manage unique complex passwords for apps they use outside of Akamai — without them having to learn or even see their passwords. So you can have the benefits without the risk.

VPNs. If the objective is to enable people to access their applications remotely, why put an obstacle in the way? Why have them go through layers of security and log on to the corporate network? Why not just let people go directly to apps that they’re authorized for — using an icon interface on their devices? That’s a minimum-friction experience for the employee, and a more secure approach because they’re not accessing the Akamai network at large.

Communications. We want employee collaboration to be frictionless, too, and so are investing in unified communications. For us that means one platform for telephony, chat, video conferencing, and convening and conducting remote meetings. For the employee, there’s one interface, not separate voice, chat, and video services. The system is smart about people’s presence and availability. Connections are automated by the app, so you don’t have to remember dial-in numbers and codes. People can connect at will. And it includes screen sharing for presentations or collaboration. And it will work on multiple devices and browsers — again to let the users decide what they are comfortable with, not introducing friction through system constraints.

Akamai is building a new headquarters, providing a greenfield opportunity in terms of technology installation. How does that factor into your simplification plans?

The initiatives I just mentioned are all underway now. The new building for 2,200 employees goes into operation around the beginning of 2020. The radical change there is that we don’t plan to wire it. It will be like one big Wi-Fi hotspot.

That’s convenient for employees, who can work with full functionality on devices of their choice from anyplace in or around the building. It’s convenient for guests, who can simply access the Internet and through it their own applications, but of course not Akamai resources. We estimate a savings of $3 million by not installing all the cabling and switches. And security improves through simplified gateways and because we’ll no longer have all those Ethernet jacks as potential points of vulnerability.

We’re talking with Facilities about how we can take advantage of no-wires infrastructure when it comes to designing workspaces — individual, common, and on-demand. We’re looking at things with fresh eyes — what will be the art of the possible in 2020? Even desk phones that haven’t changed in two decades will be replaced by softphones that have so much more functionality, as well as not being fixed to the desk. For our employees, their laptop, tablet, or smartphone can now double as their office phone, whether they are in or out of the office. They’ll have to get used to a new way of working — and of collaborating much more fluidly. While this may sound confusing or counterproductive to some, it’s seen as a long overdue productivity improvement by others — notably our Millennial employees, who already comprise more than 50% of our global workforce. And for those people that like things just as they are now, we’ll offer that option too.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, throughout the simplification process, we leverage and plan to showcase Akamai’s own products and services in the areas of remote access to enterprise applications to deliver the icon-driven mobile experience, and of course our suite of security products for protection against threats like phishing and DDoS.

What lies ahead? How do you see this vision and journey unfolding?

We’re looking at a three-year horizon. “No passwords” will happen within the next 12 months. It will take a couple of years to have a completely seamless environment with icon-based access to applications, and then we’ll have no VPNs. “No wires” will happen at scale with the new building, and in the meantime we’re solving for all use cases and working to show people how it’s going to be a boon to user experience and productivity. It’s important to note that we’re not just cramming this stuff in — we have plenty of time to show our users how this can improve working conditions, and adapt our plans based on their feedback.

We’re also finding ways to leverage the Internet and cloud as much as possible, and over time that means smaller data centers and less reliance on corporate networks. Almost every company is on a gradual migration to the cloud. We’ll be more aggressive than most because we believe so strongly in keeping infrastructure agile and paying for resources as consumed. The day is coming where compute power will be priced and delivered like a utility delivers electricity. And the cloud is already here to handle the overflow, so the days of overbuilding infrastructure and using only 20% of it should be behind us.

Our journey to simplified infrastructure has many threads — no passwords, no VPNs, no wires, unified communications. However, three themes run through all these initiatives: The user experience has less friction. Costs are driven down. And security is enhanced.

Add them all together, and the infrastructure as a whole is simpler and more agile. So the enterprise and its employees can be more agile, productive, and collaborative.

What advice do you have for CIOs undertaking this journey?

Just get started. Pick a department or area of the company. Show people how things can work and the benefits will become apparent. You shouldn’t need to ask permission. The CIO should already have room to experiment on behalf of the enterprise. You don’t want to be in the position of doing a PowerPoint roadshow trying to convince everyone ahead of time. That just draws out naysayers who make excuses for why things that work elsewhere “won’t work here.”

At the same time, find some allies, preferably senior decision makers — executives willing to try things in their parts of the business, especially if they’re in startup mode and want to experiment. If executives need convincing, take them on a tour of companies that have simplified infrastructure and can talk about the benefits. There are candidate companies in many industries — consumer products, financial services, non-tech companies — it’s not just in Silicon Valley.

Your initial steps don’t have to cost a lot. You could get started for a few thousand dollars and empower a department to work differently. As you scale up, net savings and other benefits accrue. Then stay the course. If your company is on a drive to digitize and transform, simplified infrastructure is more than a good fit. It’s a necessity.

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