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Lightbend Podcast: Abby Kearns on How Cloud Native Applications Enable Enterprise Innovation

Guest Speaker: Abby Kearns CTO, Puppet

Making Technology More Meaningful For the Business

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In this Lightbend podcast, we are joined by Abby Kearns, CTO at Puppet and a Lightbend board member, to discuss how cloud native applications enable enterprise innovation, best practices for getting started, and the rise of new cloud native technologies.

Note: The transcript below has been edited for clarity and readability.

Brian Foster: Welcome to this Lightbend podcast. My name is Brian Foster, Content Marketing Director here at Lightbend. Today, I'm sitting down with Abby Kearns, CTO at Puppet and a Lightbend board member, to discuss how cloud-native applications enable enterprise innovation, best practices for getting started, and the rise of new cloud-native technologies. Given Abby's background and experience in the enterprise technology industry, I thought we could all benefit from hearing her insights on the current state of cloud native. Abby, thanks for joining me today.

Abby Kearns: Thank you for having me, Brian. I'm so excited to be here.

BF: It's great to have you. As we get started here, can you tell listeners a little bit about yourself, what you do, and what are some of your interests?

AK: Today, I am CTO of Puppet, and I'm also an independent board director at Lightbend, which I'm excited to be on. I've been at Puppet a year now, and prior to joining Puppet, I was the CEO of Cloud Foundry Foundation for many years, and got to spend a lot of time on the forefront of cloud, digitization and open source. But in a nutshell, I have been in tech a little over 21 years, so that dates me, and all of its enterprise infrastructure because that's really one of my passions.

BF: You have such a great background, especially in open source. That's something here at Lightbend that we're very much interested in. I'd love to start with a question that seems like it shouldn't be difficult. In your view, what is a cloud-native application, and how does it differ from, say, a cloud-based application? 

AK: I've never heard those two things put together, but I'd say cloud-native and the intentionality behind cloud native, which before the term was really thrown about, we were referring to these types of applications as 12-factor apps. So essentially, what we're really talking about are apps that are written for the purpose of running in a cloud environment. And when I say that, what I really mean is the intentionality behind cloud was to give you—as a user—opportunity to take advantage of an environment that could scale out quickly, was highly resilient, that you could easily spin up and spin down, and could really leverage those ephemeral workloads. And when we talk about all of those things, we talk about scale, we talk about resilience. Underneath all of that is an infrastructure that more or less goes away randomly.

And so when we talk about writing applications for purposes of the cloud, it's really writing applications with the intention of, "If things go away underneath your application, what does it do and how does it behave?" And so when we talk about cloud-native or even 12-factor apps, we're talking about stateless applications typically, applications that don't have state that can deal with changes in the infrastructure underneath them. And so that's really where a lot of the ideation came around these applications. Also they tend to be smaller, so we talk about microservices or serverless. They're very small applications that you can quickly write and iterate on. And so all of this is in service of writing more applications faster, getting them to production faster, and being able to run them on an infrastructure that changes quickly. And all of it speaks to our ability to move faster at a faster pace, but also have a greater resiliency to the applications at the end of the day because we can spin them up, and that infrastructure really moves underneath them in a useful way.

BF: As adoption continues, I think the resiliency piece seems to be one that is critical. I saw a McKinsey study that said around 80% of enterprises report their application modernization efforts have failed or haven't lived up to the hype. In your view, how would you say cloud-native applications can deliver real business value from some of these modernization efforts? 

AK: I feel like there is a lot of hype around the magic of the cloud that turns out, underneath the magic of the cloud, there's this thing called infrastructure that actually exists there. There are still servers, even though we say serverless, there are still environments out there. And so at the end of the day, understanding that infrastructure is fallible, it always has been. And that's really why 15 years ago, we talked about BCDR, business continuity disaster recovery, we talked about architecting your applications in your infrastructure to support those things. And today, that model doesn't go away, it just shifts. 

And so you really have to take that into consideration. I feel a little bit silly saying that because I think I've been saying it for the last seven years, but we're still early days for cloud in that there are workloads running in the cloud, but we're not nearly there in terms of what we're going to see five years from now.

The magnitude, the scale of applications and workloads we're going to be seeing running in public cloud and private cloud and on-prem, we're not nearly there yet. And so I think we're just starting to run into some of those scenarios where we actually start to say, "Okay, what is the business value?" We've moved beyond proof of concepts.

When we talked about proof of concept apps a few years ago, it was mainly like mobile apps, those greenfield applications, and now we've moved into refactoring applications and application migration and really intentional use of the cloud. And I do think it's fantastic because it's really forced the conversation, "What am I gonna do with this? What problems am I solving, and am I writing my application in a way that serves that outcome?" And it really puts a lot more thought into, "How am I constructing my application and what infrastructure am I leveraging that's gonna get me the most out of that?" And yes, it takes more time and more intentionality, but it also, at the end of the day, provides more value to the business, as we think about businesses that are now becoming more and more digitized.

BF: What we've all gone through the past year has even sped up a lot of adoption, and companies are thinking of ways that they can extract business value faster. As you mentioned, moving from proof of concept to now companies thinking about how they can do more, it does seem like that's even sped up a bit.

AK: It has. It's so much faster. When I started my career, the lifespan on infrastructure was eight years. So really major technology decisions were only made about every seven or eight years. Nine, 10 years, if you're a laggard.

And today, look at this pace of change. Look how far we've come in five years. Kubernetes didn't exist six years ago. We weren't talking about cloud native five years ago. And the world has changed, and it's changing faster every quarter. And so the pace of change has increased in terms of the technology, but I don't think it has to change the way you think about how you leverage technology, and how you turn technology into a meaningful asset that allows you as an enterprise to actually get more, become more relevant, take greater advantage of a marketplace that's changing or frankly, really drive additional value into the marketplace and to your customers. And I think all of that is achievable through technology and largely through software, but you really have to understand what you're trying to get out of it first.

BF: There's been a lot of talk about stateful, what it is, particularly within the context of stateful serverless. What's your take on the stateful serverless movement? And how do you think from a technology perspective that it will impact how folks are thinking about cloud-native application development? 

AK: Well, I think back to six years ago. I was privy to a lot of the discussions that were happening around cloud native and microservices, and it was interesting because I felt like there was this really broad assumption that every app was eventually going to be either service or serverless, microservices, or stateless applications, and the reality is that's not the case. The reality is that serverless, microservices, and stateless applications are a percentage of the applications, but it's not necessarily going to be all of them. At the end of the day, state is useful for many different reasons, for many different purposes and for many different application types.

The opportunity that exists to marry stateful with serverless, so being able to write small applications that really take advantage of the speed in which they are able to be created and deployed and managed, but still retain those capabilities in the extension of state, is a very powerful story.

When you think about some of the largest companies in the world and how they're really starting to think about their software development journey, there's a tremendous amount of opportunity, but also a tremendous amount of power in bringing that capability to the enterprise.

BF: There are some needs that I think this type of technology can solve for, and it's good to see companies starting to assess where things are and how it can work for them, which is really great. Stepping back for more of a higher level view, it's often been said that going cloud native is a journey rather than a process, or at least I've heard that throughout my career. How do you recommend enterprises get the most out of this journey? 

AK: Well, first, I might want to make a slight correction in that an enterprise's goal shouldn't be cloud native. I will say an enterprise's objective should be, "How do I leverage technology in a much more meaningful way for my business?" Because if you start with that construct, then you can start to say, "How does this apply across my company, and how do I really orient myself around that goal and in the best way possible?" Because at the end of the day, that's really what they're trying to solve. Enterprises are really trying to say, "How can I write more software more meaningfully and deploy that into production faster?" That's really the goal here. And so backing into that, there's a lot of things that must be true for that to actually happen. There are organizational changes that have to happen, process changes, tooling, alignment. It's a lot to unpack from that single outcome, and it's a journey because it takes a long time to change the way people think, the way the people work, how they collaborate, how they communicate, what tools they use to achieve their job. 

You're fundamentally changing a lot of people's jobs in your company. And so that takes time. It takes time, it takes investment, it takes a consistent outlook on what that goal is, and being very clear about the expectation. It sounds super simple when you talk about it, but at the end of the day, it's hard. It's hard shifting and shaping an organization to work in new ways. And I think technology can bring so much value to an enterprise, but in order to take advantage of it in meaningful ways, you really have to take a step back to say, "Okay, what do I wanna achieve, and how is technology gonna be in service of that," versus, "I've got a new technology. How do I apply it?" And I think that's a new motion for a lot of companies, and it's one that takes time and patience to really reason through. But if you can really grasp that goal, you can really use technology in interesting ways to achieve that goal.

BF: I definitely agree. And that's a great perspective again around this organizational transformation that needs to come before a lot of the moves in ensuring alignment. The last question I had, and again, I think this is a good wrap up to what we’ve been discussing: In your view, how will the rise of cloud native application development impact companies this year and even beyond? 

AK: Well, I think we're seeing more companies write more cloud native applications. I know we are actually. We're seeing it, it's happening, it's taken a while, just like we're seeing a rise in the use of containers, even though there's a lot of people that thought containers had peaked in 2014, 2015. But we're actually starting to see that traction in the enterprise. And I say that because particularly for those of us in tech, we're like, "Oh, okay, well, everyone's doing this now," and it's not the case, it's still pretty early for most large enterprises. And even though many enterprises have been using containers and writing cloud native apps for several years, it's still a very small section of the enterprise. It's a small team, it's a small group, it's by no means like half the company.

We're seeing the rise and the increase of these applications that are developed, deployed and managed, but I think that we're on the cusp of seeing that real traction hit, where we see that real hockey stick growth in the number of workloads that are written and deployed.

And that I think is going to be coming over the next 12-18 months, where organizations are starting to hit their stride and write those applications, and really get comfortable not just writing the application, but managing those applications at scale. And that's really where it's going to get really interesting over the next couple of years because a lot of the technology is still being developed that allows enterprises to do this at scale. I think it's exciting, but I think it also says there's going to be a lot of change over the next couple of years as the technology rises to meet the moment as enterprises really want to invest in growing their environment at scale.

BF: That's a really good point. There will be new technologies that come around, new standards or new things that can dramatically change and impact some of the things you're talking about. But just being able to develop faster or at greater scale is an exciting piece of the industry. But anyways, Abby, thanks again for taking the time to sit down with me. I really appreciate it, and I enjoyed the conversation. I look forward to welcoming you back on this podcast program very soon.

AK: Well, I hope you'll have me back some time, Brian. This was a lot of fun.

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