The rise of mobile-first infrastructure

In a recent “Silly Things in IT” blog, I cheekily proposed the mission statement for IT Infrastructure:

I exist to run applications. I shall run them quickly, efficiently, and safely. I should minimize the time it takes humans to use me.

I continue to meet many IT department heads and infrastructure startups that get so wrapped up in the feeds-and-speeds of their domain, that they lose track of the fact that infrastructure is just a means to an end. Yet if you look at our field’s relatively brief history, you find that it is indeed the rise of new application categories and new user expectations that has driven the big disruptions in infrastructure. We’ve seen examples of this over and over. Batch and CICS applications and expectations of heavy security and expert-only users drove the mainframe era. The relational database-backed transactional applications and a broader business analyst user base led to the popularity of department-level mini-computers (along with Unix and Oracle). And personal productivity tools and empowered office workers drove the PC and the client-server adoption wave.

So where does that put us today? How will bloggers 20 years from now refer to the current era of infrastructure and the applications that spurred dramatic change? On the user-expectation front, I’d categorize today’s world under the umbrellas of “impatience” and “ubiquity.”  Trained by our home experiences with Google, Netflix, app stores, Wikipedia and Amazon, we now expect near-instant access to massive compute and data capabilities on-demand and from any device and any location. What about the new application types?\

There are several dramatic application forces causing architectural agita:

  1. Mobile-ification: apps moving from mobile-hindered to mobile-enabled to mobile-first
  2. SaaS-ification: on-premise license software moving to subscription pricing and cloud delivery
  3. Data-ification: data coming from everywhere offering opportunity for new insights

While all three are interesting and profound (and not mutually exclusive), I find myself continuously coming back to the real implications of “mobile-ification.” We often think about the implications of building these new mobile apps all the time — new user-experiences, app store-based delivery, new development and testing needs, and more. However, I see less thought going into the implications the mobile-first world will have on the back-end infrastructure needed to deliver, support and manage them. What are the traits of the truly mobile-first infrastructure that will permeate the private data centers and public clouds of the future?

We’re still in the early days, but several new and impactful trends have already emerged to shape the landscape:

APIs before apps: When creating new mobile applications, companies and vendors quickly realize that more formal APIs are essential. I really enjoyed this recent article highlighting APIs as “the fossil fuel of business growth.” Whether part of a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), fronting Backend-as-a-Service offerings, enabling common back-ends for thick, web and mobile apps, or exporting data sources for programmatic access, APIs are the future, and new tools, services and platforms will help pave their way to ubiquity.

Porous perimeters: The days of the network perimeter being the clear delimiter of what can come in and out of a data center are numbered. Ubiquitous mobile access creates a world where the good guys are often outside of the network (and the bad guys are often within!). Furthermore, mobile apps are often handling data coming from both private and public data sources, further compounding the challenge. A new class of security will emerge that morphs today’s VPN, firewall, VLAN and MPLS technologies into more secure and convenient access for the mobile-first era.

Morphing mobile networks: Beyond the porous perimeter, even more dramatic changes are coming to the networks tethering mobile devices to their apps and data. From the broadband wireless antennas to the backhaul infrastructure connecting them to their destinations, we’re in a time of much flux with tough tradeoffs between latency, density, cost, speed and power usage. Furthermore, the above-mentioned API model is further increasing the amount of “east-west” traffic within a datacenter (a shift that server virtualization helped initiate/exacerbate and that SDN efforts are targeting). There are countless opportunities for optimization across this space, especially as public broadband increasingly folds directly into the higher security, QoS and auditing needs of the enterprise.

Managing mobile scale: The rapid increase in mobile devices, data and users in the enterprise brings substantial stresses of scale to supporting infrastructure as well, a stress that cloud computing models initiated. Furthermore, we now expect access to resources at all times and from any place, with substantial implications on availability requirements as well as cost-to-serve models. The result will be an even larger renaissance in horizontal architectures and tiered storage models than we’ve seen in the current public and private cloud era. Associated with this architectural shift will be a new set of tools to monitor, manage and optimize the cost/performance/availability tradeoffs that must be made. Lastly, the need and opportunity to make sense out of (and take advantage of!) this rich data will continue to drive the already fast-moving wave of new data and analytic platforms ala Hadoop.

Identity crises: One last trait we’re hearing more and more about is how to handle authentication and authorization in this brave new world. On the challenges front, we now expect ubiquitous access to sensitive data and applications, and we also expect to handle substantial commerce to and from mobile devices and users. The risk of data leakage, fraud, and other threats is unprecedented. On an optimistic note, we have access to all sorts of new information (e.g. biometric, location) to aid us in threat analysis and policy creation. These capabilities will be augmented by new enforcement mechanisms (e.g. new mobile “containers” and MAM tools) to tackle this challenge!

These are just some of the initial disruptions that I’m exploring and getting excited about, and I know there are several others. When we look back on this period several years from now, I’m confident we’ll recognize the impact that an increasingly mobile-first world has played in shaping modern infrastructure!

Dr. Stephen Herrod is managing director at General Catalyst Partners and the former CTO of VMware. You can learn more about this and other topics at

Featured image adapted from Thinkstock/venimo