Microservices future of IOT, AI, blockchain says Alfresco CTO

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Alfresco Software co-founder and CTO John Newton says modular development and microservices could be the key to getting IoT services to market swiftly – particularly in the financial services sector. Mark Samuels reports.

IT decision-makers can use microservices to bring new services to market quickly and future-proof their organisations for further advances in connected technology.

That’s the view of John Newton, CTO and co-founder of information management specialist, Alfresco Software, who says the move towards microservices is nothing short of a “revolution in connectivity”.

Microservices are an architectural method for developing software applications as a series of components. For businesses in all sectors, Newton envisages a future where IT decision makers can use microservices to focus on business logic, rather than infrastructure challenges.

“You’ll be able to tap into services as they’re required, and that means CIOs and their peers will be able to focus on the areas of the business that represent a competitive differentiation,” he says.

In the future, it won’t make sense for people to build their own IoT services, AI systems, and blockchain products. Business leaders will just be able to connect to and use other services on demand.

“That’s going to drive customers to focus on what they do best: business logic.”

APIs on tap

Newton says the pace of change in connectivity will be rapid. He expects the development of online markets for new services, probably in the next five years.

He also anticipates the creation of exchanges where business leaders will be able source an API for the advanced capability their business requires, whether that’s data processing or machine learning.

“This whole process will be completely driven by the internet. It might be a case of simply getting hold of the URL from a provider and using that link to start using the services you need internally,” says Newton.

He expects these connected services to become gradually standardised, both in terms of accessing requirements, and in procurement and contracting.

This ‘componentised’ approach to service development will be perfect for both service providers and end users, who need better resources to make the most of a range of advanced technologies, he says.

“Microservices give companies the potential to scale out,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about how your technology is being built.

Microservices are a way of future-proofing your business for the huge amounts of processing that will be required in areas like AI modelling and natural language processing.

Newton says that microservices will also help support the rollout of distributed ledger services. “Blockchain is a hot topic in our industry right now, but IT leaders should recognise it should just be a service,” he says.

“What we’ll have in terms of connectivity is a general services revolution. And the key element that’s supporting this change, and which will help build this transformation successfully, is embracing microservices.”

Future proofing for change

Newton suggests the financial services sector as an example how firms have already started to embrace microservices.

Enterprises that are keen to embrace digital transformation are often held back by legacy systems, he says. “So, how do you take all that Cobol and make it ready for the internet era?

“As you realise that you need to make those pieces interoperable in a scalable way, you recognise that you need a new approach.”

Newton, who also co-founded content management firm Documentum in 1990, says the more architectural approach afforded by microservices gives banks an opportunity to deal with legacy constraints, to build the foundations for digital transformation and, potentially, for further levels of connected services, such as blockchain.

“The separation of components through microservices means banks are future-proofing themselves for change,” he says. “Microservices are a way to not only support a multi-cloud strategy, but also to speed up the entire IT process and bring about substantial improvements in agility.”

Newton refers to two examples. One UK bank, which was struggling with compliance demands, is now using microservices to update its systems and create a simpler route to the public cloud. Meanwhile a global bank also wants to move to the cloud in a way that satisfies regulators.

But the cloud is just a starting point. The next stage will see banks use microservices to ride the coming wave of IoT connectivity, claims Newton.

“It’s a better way to architect,” he says. “Rather than monolithic systems, banks can treat certain elements – such as a trading engine – as a microservice. When a technology like blockchain comes along, they can evolve their existing capability, without having to start all over again.”

Best practice advice

Newton offers three pieces of best-practice advice for IT decision makers who are looking to make the most of an architectural approach.

First, look at microservices with clear lines of responsibility, he says.

“Go to your data architecture and identify the common and independent elements. Use that as a map to work out where microservices can be applied. Ringfence these areas and define responsibility.

“If there’s ambiguity around where the lines are drawn, then that crossover point will be a good candidate for the creation of another microservice.”

Second, IT decision makers should focus on understanding the technology behind microservices. Too many people investigate Docker, see the benefits of the system and believe the creation of a componentised strategy will be straightforward, he says. But Newton advises caution.

“There’s a whole new way of thinking associated to microservices,” he says, stressing the importance of agile methodology. “Embrace DevOps, because then you’ll be focused on continuous integration and deployment. Think about service creation in a very different way to the traditional waterfall ‘build and deploy’ process. Refinement is constant.”

Finally, Newton advises IT decision makers to go beyond the enterprise firewall. Rather than considering services in a purely internal context, think about those that are common to other businesses, he says. CIOs need to recognise that certain layers, such as content, messaging, databases, and authentication, can be sourced from external specialists as a service.

“These are going to be common components,” he says. “There’s no point in continually re-inventing these services.”

Internet of Business says

Despite his CTO job title, Newton heads up Alfresco Software, but his chosen designation suggests that the technology is everything for this understated provider, whose interesting client list includes the New York Philharmonic.

As the IoT grows, the use of modular and/or ‘componentised’ development will be increasingly important as organisations seek solutions that will give them rapid business advantage.

Meanwhile, within many organisations, traditional back-office IT and new customer-facing app development are being brought under the same management umbrella, as CXOs are being asked to move away from ‘keeping the lights on’ and towards supporting strategic business aims.

• We welcome Mark Samuels to our expanding roster of talent.

Mark Samuels is former editor of CIO Connect and former features editor of Computing. Mark has written articles for newspapers including The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Times. He has also produced features and columns for a range of IT publications, such as Computer Weekly, ZDNet, Tech Republic, IT Pro, Channel Pro, CBR, The Register, Retail Business, and Diginomica. 

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