Builders, XaaS, Modularity, and the Future of Business
I attended AWS re:Invent 2016 about three or four weeks ago. Being new to both AWS and to re:Invent I was an outsider again, observing with virgin eyes. This means I learned a lot. Hopefully it means I saw things a bit differently than those more fully entrenched in this new community. So while others have long since covered the product announcements and other major news from the event, I’ll take this opportunity to touch on some of the things that struck me as descriptive and/or indicative of the greater trends at play here.
One of the first things that stood out to my newb mind was the term “builder.” Within the AWS community people who work on or in or with AWS are referred to as builders. My first question was “why?” Why apply a new label? Why not just keep calling them administrators, engineers, users, or developers? I quickly decided that the new term was not only warranted but also indicative of AWS’ impact.
The first myth you must dispel when learning about AWS is that it is “easy.” The current AWS platform offers as many as 9 distinct products in each of 17 functional areas. Each of those products comes with a staggering list of options and features. Understanding how to fully and efficiently apply even a specialized portion of the tools available requires a significant investment of time and attention. Powerful? Yes. Easy? No. Just like any previous innovation, AWS provides new functionality and requires a new skillset. The AWS builder must possess a specialized knowledge of this new platform in order to utilize it.
New functionality and a new interface aren’t enough to justify a change in language though. Think of the terms ‘developer,’ ‘system administrator,’ and ‘network engineer.’ They were all applied to describe distinctly new functional roles created by significant paradigm shifts. New titles are applied to mark the emergence of a new discipline, not an incremental change. Builders meet this requirement.
While AWS is clearly playing a massive role in defining this new paradigm, it’s bigger than that.
AWS’ advantage over other “cloud” providers is in it’s wide and deep set of products. Even so, the entirety of their offering can be lumped into two categories: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). Both of these can in turn be seen as part of a larger trend towards XaaS – something/anything as a service.
Until now every enterprise was required to stand up and maintain various systems to support their business. This is generally inefficient. The majority of the functions provided by these support systems are common, so independent development and operation inherently causes duplication of effort. More pointedly, excellence seems to happen through specialization. Effective organizations define themselves by what they do best, what they do differently, and not what they have in common with other organizations. Despite this, most enterprises include whole departments dedicated to common functions.
XaaS threatens to change that. Imagine a world where every common business process, support system, and infrastructure requirement was available on demand from a company dedicated to providing that single function.
If your mind works like mine, this imaginary Everything-as-a-Service world is one filled with specialization and with modularity. This is most exciting when you consider how this modularity lowers the barrier to entry for new enterprises with new ideas.
As we have developed new technology to either enable or enhance productivity in specific areas, these technologies quickly become table stakes in many endeavors. Think about running a business without email. How about without phones? If I took away your file server / file share, how productive would your company be?
This need to “keep up with the Jones Inc’s” provides an advantage to larger organizations, corporate behemoths able to generate enough revenue to support all of the latest and greatest tools for their production and R&D staff. Nurses, doctors, lawyers, developers, scientists, engineers, salespeople, etc. are all more productive when provided with the needed resources to support their work. This leaves newer, smaller organizations who are unable to afford specialized equipment and operational staff at a significant disadvantage.
The Future of Business
The modular business overcomes this disadvantage by leveraging partners who provide all of these support systems – you guessed it – as a service. Rather than having to make massive infrastructure investments and staff up whole departments of people to support their core business; the modular enterprise can consume these functions on demand. This frees them to focus specifically on what makes them special.
We are already seeing this with offerings like Office365, Google Docs, and Slack, to name just a few. AWS is adding things like DB-as-a-Service, IoT-as-a-Service, AI-as-a-Service, and more. Extrapolate this trend to include all common business functions and consider the possibilities… Just as meat-space builders use common materials (2x4s, I-beams, etc) to construct buildings, this new and growing cadre of cyberspace builders will use common XaaS offerings to construct enterprises.
A speaker from PwC called this model the “Configurable Enterprise” and likened the corresponding paradigm shift to the dawn of the world wide web (and resulting dot com boom). Just as web stores lowered the barrier to entry for retail stores radically, the dawn of XaaS is radically changing the economics of launching new products and services. With AWS and other XaaS offerings, everyone has access to the hardware and software tools needed to build their vision of the future. All that’s needed is for builders to stitch the lego-brick-like, on-demand, modular services together in the best way to support the production and distribution of their innovation.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic; let me know where I’m wrong, where you agree, and what you think the future of business looks like.