OpenStack “State of the nation”

Over the past few days I have had the pleasure of attending the OpenStack Summit in Paris. The 6000 person attendance figure alone tells a story of the massive momentum behind this open source software project. Over a 5 day period thousands of vendors, integrators and developers got together to shape the future of this amazing project.

So, what is OpenStack? It is a collection of open source tools and technologies, augmented by commercial tools, that allows customers to build private, public and hybrid cloud services.

I am currently involved in a project to build a cloud platform that will deliver public cloud services, and I selected OpenStack as the underlying technology to base my platform on. OpenStack is a relatively unknown quantity in South Africa, and one of the questions I always get asked when discussing my plans, is “why not VMWare or Hyper-V?”. Most people assume that the answer will have something to do with cost, or some crusade against big and evil tech empires. The answer is actually quite simple. OpenStack is the only platform today, that allows customers to build the cloud they want, with no vendor lock in. And while there are other open cloud platforms out there, OpenStack has the largest and most vibrant community, with the largest partner eco system. The challenge and opportunities lie in the fact that it is not a pre-packaged product (that is changing with most open source vendors now offering easy to deploy systems for enterprise use) but a framework that allows you to make component selections to build the cloud you need. The Lego of the cloud world ūüôā

This was not always the case. In the earlier releases (Grizzly, Folsom, Havana etc) there was a lot of features missing, and the toolset was difficult to deploy. The latest release is Juno, and the community is working to release Kilo in a few months time. Today, the stack is easy to deploy, with distributions and vendors such as SUSE, Red Hat, Mirantis, Canonical, HP and IBM all having easy to use deployment tools. Vendors such as Canonical and Mirantis take this deployment further, with their FUEL and JuJu tools providing several deployment options, making OpenStack as easy to deploy as traditional virtualization technologies. The partner ecosystem has dramatically expanded, with more and more companies providing focussed add-on’s for the platform, making it easier to deploy, operate and manage this environment.

The layer above the basic cloud platform Infrastructure-as-a-Service layer has also expanded. Platform-as-a-Service tools, container technology and others such as software defined network and network function virtualization are all driving the new applications and services that allows businesses to be more agile with their technology services.

The use cases for the cloud platforms feature three recurring themes. More speed, more agility, less cost. We now live in an era where “credit card” decisions are made, where a manager will swipe a company credit card to buy and instantly access a service if internal IT moves too slow. The way savvy companies counter this, to maintain control while delivering on the new business requirements for faster availability of infrastructure and services, is to deploy clouds internally. I saw several case studies being presented where companies shared their numbers of how fast services can now be deployed and adopted, and how their internal IT user satisfaction scores went up.

It is important to note that virtualization and cloud are not terms to be used interchangeably. Yes, OpenStack contains virtualization (select your hypervisor from KVM, Hyper-V, ESXi or XEN and others), but it provides technology for an “Amazon AWS like” web layer where users can authenticate and select options to be deployed as they need them. Traditional virtualization vendors such as VMWare are also throwing their weight behind OpenStack, integrating their technology with OpenStack to provide a single control plane and great user experience.

What does this mean for South African companies? In short, you now have access to a set of technologies that enables you to make smart choices, delivering IT as a service, providing your users with a great, flexible platform, capable of quickly delivering infrastructure and apps.

If you’d like more info, to see how this can work for your business, leave a comment and I’ll reach out to you.

Education…my guide for modern parents

As a result of the work I have been doing on our cloud project, I am experiencing first hand the lack of skill that we have in certain technology fields locally. One of the reasons for changing our current business and business model, is that we want the ability to take advantage of our own intellectual property and leverage what we know in our business model. But doing that is hard, as it requires a broad range of skills, and we are coming up short finding everything that we need locally.

Education is obviously key in addressing this. It is however clear that the South African school system is not currently up to the task. Now we can blame a whole lot o things for the failure of our public school system, but do not think that the private schools fare any better. We’ll have to figure out how we can use the educational resources out there, to better equip our kids. This matter is very close to my heart, as I am father to two young boys, currently aged 5 and 7. Bottom line is, we cannot leave the important task of education just up to our schools, as parents we need to be involved on a daily basis.

Being a dad, I have started looking around to see what options are available for teaching our kids some technology skills, and helping them develop key skills like math and science. One needs to tread carefully here, so that we do not expose our children to certain technologies prematurely. But there are loads of things we can do to peak their interest. I am not a professional educator, and this guide is based around information for parents living in South Africa, so your mileage may vary. This may sound like it is for boys only, but there are plenty of girly projects too.

For a start, I love doing basic, fun science experiments with my kids. This teaches them about chemistry, physics, math and project management. They learn valuable life skills while doing something fun. You do not have to rack your brain for ideas, I use Experilab as my first stop. These guys have an amazing range of simple experiments that you buy online or at their shop in Pretoria. Even my local pharmacy stocks their experiments. The kits usually contains the chemicals you’ll need, you just need to provide simple household items like bowls, spoons etc. We have made bouncing balls, grown crystals, made chemicals that glow in the dark, simple electric motors and loads more. The online shops also sells all the lab equipment you may need, such as tubes, glass holders, magnifying lenses etc. Each kit can be done in 30-45 minutes, so you do not have long to wait for results.

experilab logo BBalls FLYSCIENCE

I love doing a bit more challenging projects too, especially items that take a bit longer to complete, to also teach the kids the virtue of patience. These usually involve a lot more building, and we involve mom too. Developing the kids’ visual art skills are important too, so once we built something, mom helps with decorating it. For kits that allow a bit more free play, and outdoor time, look at the Dala Junior Tradesman kits. These kits use real bricks and mortar to help kids build houses etc, outdoors.

juniortm_kit_firsthousegarage

Adding to their skills, means letting them get some hands on time with real tools. One afternoon, the boys and I went shopping for real tools. Dad bought them a portable tool chest (get one at Plasticland) and then we added some essential screwdrivers, a hammer, a saw, duct tape, nails, glue, string, spray paint, sanding paper, screws, gloves, safety goggles etc. Next we added some wood and PVC pipe, plus some basic castor and normal wheels (get these from Chamberlain or Builders Warehouse). For projects to build using these tools and materials, I bought a series of books. Here a list from Kalahari.com:

50 things geek dad 1 geek dad 2 geek dad 3

The books provide us with the ideas for our projects. We have built catapults, blow dart guns, coke fountains and loads of other fun toys. Once the building is done, mom helps with decoration. The process I use is quite simple. I let the kids page the books, to select a project, then I vet it for age appropriateness, time and cost. Once we have agreed on a project, we make a list of things we have and things we need to shop. Bare in mind these books use US measurements, so be prepared to adapt dimensions and find alternative products (part of the fun I say!). A shopping expedition gets mounted with our list, and when we get back home, the building starts. These projects may require a day or two to finish, or an entire Saturday, so plan accordingly and set the correct expectation. Be prepared for loads of questions, and try your best to answer them, or Google for info.

The above processes helps with the major and minor motor skills, developing their hand/eye co-ordination. A big trap to avoid are table devices such as iPad’s. This does not mean that we do not let them use tablets, but try to limit the amount of “flat screen time” (tablets and TV) to no more than 45 minutes per day. My kids love Lego blocks, so on the tablets we use companion apps with additional build plans for the blocks we have.

Proficiency with technology will be come key for our children. By this, I do not mean the simple ability to start a computer and use office productivity software (that is important too), but ways to manipulate and interact with technology. Here’s a simple analogy. We need to teach our children work processing as a skill, not Microsoft Word. We need to teach them how to use a spreadsheet, not just Microsoft Excel. They must learn a programming language, and understand some basic electronics. The point here is not to turn everyone into engineers, but to get everyone more comfortable with technology. My house is end-to-end covered by wireless, each person in the household own an iPad, there are several laptop computers, several servers and the home theatre. All the technology is integrated. The home theatre can be controller by smartphones, movies and music can be streamed to any computer, phone or tablet. Everything is connected to the Internet for news, movies etc. In future, more homes will look like this and be even more connected. The technology should not scare us or¬†our children. Technology will become more prevalent in our workplaces so we need a basic understanding of how these devices work, and how to interact with technology. For me personally, proficiency in the basic principles of programming is important, as well as a basic understanding of electronics, and the interaction between electronics and software.

Do not be afraid to shop online, and remember, it is most likely cheaper to buy directly from the overseas vendor. If you want to shop for an educational toy online, and they do not offer either shipping to South Africa, or take South African credit cards as payments, then you can services such as MyUS to handles ordering, payment and shipping for you, via their concierge services. Shipping is usually quite quick, my overseas packages arrive, delivered to my door (if that is your selected shipping option) within 5-10 working days.

myus

My first purchase in the electronics space was a Sparkfun Inventors kit. This can be bought online locally from Netram¬†or directly from SparkFun in the USA. It includes the amazing little Arduino Atmel based microprocessor system, with loads of components such as wires, motors, lights etc. The kit includes everything you need to build 15 projects, teaching kids the basics of electronic circuits and microprocessor programming. The Arduino system is a roaring success story all on its own. Developed by professors at an Italian university as a teaching tool, these modular systems have sparked a whole industry of projects and add-on boards. These systems power anything from Hydroponic growth systems, to 3D printers. There are loads of fun Arduino based kits around, resulting in fun, interactive toys that kids can build themselves, while learning. Simple Arduino projects include a basic light circuit, where a little LED light is turned on an off using software. You can then experiment (the kit shows you how) by seeing what effects a change in the software will have on the simple light circuit. Circuits take about 10 minutes to build, and the Arduino is powered and programmed from your Window, Mac or Linux PC’s USB port.

arduino-uno-r3  robot-arm-kit  sparkfun kit

Next up, we have the revolution that is the Raspberry Pi mini computer. This differs from the Arduino above, in that it is a mini computer system. Using a USB keyboard, mouse and an HDMI capable monitor, the Raspberry Pi is a very low cost computer. So, how cheap is low cost? I bought a Kano computer, which is a Raspberry Pi with all the cables, software and a keyboard and mouse for US 99 when they launched via Kickstarter. You can now pre-order the kits at USD 129, or surf over to Netram and buy the Pi plus all the goodies locally. This computer attaches to a flat screen TV or computer monitor via an HDMI cable. It runs a Linux operating system, optimized for kids, with games and development tools installed. The revolution here is that you have a small, low cost computer that can do loads of useful stuff. The games on the Kano are created using the Scratch programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This means that not only can the kids play the games, but they can change them using the Scratch tools to create new or different games. There is a wonderful video from TED Talks where Mitch Resnick explains the idea and applications of the Scratch language.

raspberry-pi-model-b  kano  scratch1

I saved the best for last! All of the above sounds great, but what about kids, already in school battling with Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Economics or Entrepreneurship? You need Khan Academy. This amazing, free site only requires a Google or Facebook account, and it unlocks a world of training resources for kids and parents. I’d suggest that parents surf over to the parents and tutors¬†page to get familiar with the system and how it operates. The bottom line is this, let’s assume your youngster is struggling with Geometry, specifically the angles of triangles. You can find the appropriate category from the index, and surf down to a page with a series of worked practise questions. If your child cannot complete the exercises, there is a handy, 5-15 minute video tutorial that they can then watch. They can then try the practise questions again. The system assumes mastery of a subject if you can complete 10 questions in a row, while scoring 100%. Best of all, mom and dad can have an interface where children of different ages (like mine) can have their individual progress and activity level tracked.

I know this is quite a mouthful, and it seems very technology focused. Be open-minded, take a look and see what works for you. All you need is a basic computer (get a CloudGate, they are super cool!) or some free time with your kids, to help them have fun and learn. I’d love to hear your feedback on this, and what your experiences with your kids are when you try this. Happy learning!

If you want to save money, go all the way…

The journey in building a new cloud platform has been an interesting one to say the least. When asking customers why they consider virtualization, private cloud or hybrid cloud solutions, cost saving is always part of the equation.

But, it amazes me how the technology decisions we make are influenced by vendors, and how few customers can work their way through all the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Some of the best FUD stories I hear, concern these statements:

  • We are a vendor X shop.
  • We only buy “best-of-breed” technology.
  • We only have vendor X skills.

Right…how does tying yourself into vendor X, thus leaving you without choice, save you money? And, who defines “best-of-breed”? I have it on impeccable authority that one of South Africa’s largest service providers locally, lose money on every single VM they sell via their cloud platform. How is this possible? Given their scale, they should have immense buying power, and their purchasing volume alone should put them in a much more competitive provisioning and costing space. But in thinking that, you’d be wrong.

Their first mistake was going the “we are a vendor X shop” route. Let’s not investigate the options, let’s simply take our shopping basket, and load it full of goodies that vendor X peddles, especially since vendor X claims to be “best of breed”. Dare question the rationale, and that old faithful independent analyst report, ranking vendors in a way where no one loses, but some are more equal than others, gets yanked out. This provides “proof” and is the basis for not even evaluating other technologies. Plus, said Service Provider have a long standing relationship with vendor X, and they do not want to “burn” that relationship and their current discounts, by buying from another player.

Then “we only have vendor X skills”. People, if your techies can only configure VLAN’s and routing on vendor X’s hardware, you have a serious problem on hand. You hired the wrong people! Certain technologies become a standard over time, and networking is a great example. You can buy networking kit from any one of at least 10 vendors, and your brand X skills will translate in maybe 4 hours of playtime. All you have to learn is how the command line or GUI works, as the underlying routing, switching, VLAN’s and link aggregating protocols are all the same. Storage is the same story. A LUN is a LUN, whether implemented on vendor A or vendor B’s kit.

I could carry on for days, but I think my point is made. In cloud, cost and ease of use is king. That is why we investigated everything, including the brand X’s of networking, storage, operating systems and virtualization technology. In the end, you will not find a single vendor X in our platform, we went with choices that suit our business, and where our skillset can easily be translated. It has been tough, we have been wooed, and even ridiculed for our choices, especially by the vendor X’s losing out. In the end we stuck to our guns, made bold choices, and now we’ll see how it all plays out.

And I’ll be making money on every single VM that I sell.

If it floats, flies or is in the cloud, you are better off renting…

The above bit of sagely financial advice was offered to me by a financial professional. Certain assets and items make no financial sense when you buy them, renting is the better option in many cases. Why should technology be any different?

I strongly believe that the days of buying physical servers at Capex cost is a business model that is dead for many enterprises. Why invest all that hard earned money in a dead platform, why not just rent what you need, elastically? Need more, rent more. Need less, rent less. Not only will your expenses match your requirements, but your get better proportional use from those rented assets. ¬†Some recent reports puts the average utilization of servers running virtualization hypervisors in the enterprise datacentre, at between 20% and 40%. This implies that even “enterprise” virtualization is not delivering the value promised.

How do we solve this utilization issue? It needs to be solved as it implies that we are spending money on resources that we do not use. But getting benefit from this model means that we have to have modern application and infrastructure management technologies, so that we can “right size” our resources. Managing tech resources need to move beyond the “is it on or is it off” mindset, coupled with technology silos. No offense, but I do have a giggle when enterprises who get tools like Microsoft’s SCOM for free in their enterprise license agreements, think that these basic tools tell them anything about how the app is performing. No, today we need technology that will map our business rules and processes across infrastructure, showing us impact on business processes if a port on a device, or process on a server misbehaves. The issue here is cost. Most of these platforms need to gather various forms of data, including SNMP, WMI and packet level data. The best systems will even run a small agent on your .Net, SQL and Java systems, instrumenting these down to code level. But, in South African terms, a project like this could be anywhere from R 5 Million to R 10 Million, even for relatively small environments, with around 20 app servers and around 100 servers in total.

Solving this issue has been my mission. It is one of the reasons why our cloud platform can be called “enterprise grade”. Let me explain. The systems used to monitor the packet level data are dedicated hardware devices, capable of some serious data collection and analysis. However, when buying this technology, companies have to not only think about their data rates today, but also try and guess what the data rates will be 3-5 years down the line. Typically these assets get “sweat” a long time, so invariably, an enterprise buys a bigger box than what they need. Secondly, the tech to instrument your code gets sold in certain license batches, so you end up having to buy another 10 licenses, even if you only want to roll out another two servers, taking your total to 12. Having a cloud platform enabled that has this tech built in, makes it super easy for enterprises and software developers to have this technology “baked in” to their infrastructure. Now we get to a point, where we can deliver the following info:

  • How fast is my application for the end user using it, with total response time in milliseconds instrumented from the end user device, right down all the tiers of my application and infrastructure.
  • If my response is below par (my SLA requires a 400ms response time, but I am delivering a 900ms time), where is the delay? Network, server, app, code etc?
  • In multi-tiered applications, where we have a web front-end connected, to an app server, which in turn talks to a database, we can see the delay and details for performance between servers. So, a slow app may be slow because the connection between the web servers and app tier is slow, as a result of a bad configuration on a load balancer.
  • A new update was pushed for a .Net or Java based app, and now, certain modules of the app is slow. We can pinpoint these, and help developers debug and fix performance issues, as we can see exactly which piece of the app and code is causing an issue.
  • We can tie memory, CPU and storage system performance together, and see how changes in resource quantities (add more RAM, add more vCPU) is positively or negatively affecting app performance. You can also see if a bigger server is needed, or if two or three smaller servers, running with a load balancer will work better.
  • The network performance can be instrumented and modelled to the n-th degree. Is adding more capacity going to improve my performance, or will switching to a lower latency fibre optic link from my ISP improve my performance? Is accessing the service via Internet ok, or do I need to think about a dedicated point-to-point link to the cloud, or can I simply extend my MPLS service?

Understanding the impact of resource and their behaviour is key. With the right tools, you can rent just what you need. The right sizing job for CIO/CTO level managers just got so much easier…

Size matters…smaller is better

Time to admit it, I was hugely offended recently during a session with a potential vendor. The account manager working with us may not have disclosed our current company size as part of getting a very senior european manager to see us. During the conversation, we were quizzed as to the size of our business, and you should have seen the boss’ face when my answer was “less than 10 people”. He had that “Oh no, I just stepped in poo” look.

The reality is that I should not have been puzzled by the senior guy’s reaction. It is a sizable deal for a local company, so he may have been surprised by the fact that we are a small entity. And people seem to love the whole “bigger is better” concept, so his expectation may have been just that. Being a small company with big dreams places us in good company. Any of the following names ring familiar? Google, Cisco, Dell, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple…all started by one or two guys in a dorm room or garage. Esteemed company to keep in my opinion.

The reasons for running a small company vary, for us, it was a deliberate choice, just in the way that changing that is also one. Selling time limits your margin and revenue opportunity, as you can only flog a person and sleep deprive them so much for billable hours. Lawyers, accountants etc all know what I mean. The next level up are people who can charge for their time, but special circumstances allow them a greater revenue opportunity. Think surgeons. They charge a consulting fee at a certain rate, but performing specialized surgery allows them to take their billing to the next level. Whn you have a company that sells product, you have a “sales economy of scale” that can allow a single person to hook a big deal, by moving many widgets in one go. But then there is the game we have been in for a long time, software. To say that it scales the people/revenue number is an understatement. Allow me to illustrate. My biggest customer has 8000 network devices under management using a software platform that we supplied. A “less than 10 people” company. The end user in this case supports around 160 000 employees on that network. A 16000:1 ratio for our company. How is that possible? Simple, the same amount of configuration and work to support 100 devices goes into 8000 devices. Making our size, or lack thereof irrelevant.

Now, if a supplier is worried about our size, what about our customers? In reality, they prefer us small ūüėČ The reason is simple. If they use the services of a large company, they could be 0.2%-2% of their revenue. With us, they could be 5%-10% of ours at any given time, meaning that we pay much more attention to them. Our size also makes us nimble. For example, if we engage a potential customer using the exact same technology, we can arrange a proof-of-concept, scope and execute it much quicker than our competitors. That is why our internal stats show, that if we are up against a traditional big player, we have a 10x larger chance to win the deal, not because we are awesome (well, I think we are!) but because the internal bureaucracy in a large company makes them slower to react to changes in circumstances. Our sales tactic? Let’s change the circumstances and upset the apple cart a bit to stumble the giants…

What about our customer size? Are we dealing with the top 5 largest customers in South Africa? No, we simply do not have the reach to get them. Instead, in the 1000-10000 user range, our customer list reads like the who’s who of well known South African companies. We prefer dealing with them, as they are far more open minded than the big, “enterprise template” players. No tenders or public RFP’s mean that we can uncover and solve problems almost unhindered for them. They decide quick, and pay quick. The value of a buck is something they know, and they seek every advantage possible to enable them to compete and win against their bigger competitors. Their internal IT departments tend to be decently sized and skilled, allowing us to leverage our specialized skills.

All of this adds up to the following. Being smaller is a competitive advantage, one that we have been using to great effect for many years, and hopefully for many more to come.

My role models? The 55 employee company WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in a 19 Billion Dollar deal…who’s making poo faces now?

Tactical technology thinking is killing innovation

A session with a representative from a major international research company confirmed what I have suspected for a long time…many IT players style themselves as “strategic” thinkers, but in reality, they employ tactical thinking to satisfy their own business goals.

Rodin's "The Thinker"

Rodin’s “The Thinker”

As we moved through my requirements this morning, it became clear why some obvious partnership opportunities were slow to materialize at the onset of our cloud platform R&D process. Historical vendor relationships rule the “Go to market” thinking of many large technology resellers and consultancies. Instead of thinking about “what” a problem needs to be solved with, they are thinking about the “who”. For instance, if the customer needs to solve a networking challenge, a certain vendor’s name is foremost.¬†Now, is that a strategic or a tactical choice? I would answer tactical, as the networking market is going through a major change, and a large number of “up and coming” solutions might be better employed to solve particular problems. The reseller positions the choice as “strategic”, as they have loads of skills to support the technology. Does this mean that my gorilla in the networking space makes bad networking kit? Not at all, just they are not the answer for every problem related to networking.

This is where the disconnect happens. The customer has a specific problem that needs solving. The reseller believes the vendor’s go to market plan and strategy, in many cases simply because the technical resources that the reseller employs has no exposure to other vendor’s technology. And they do not have time to learn new skills or research the market, as they are flat out involved in either rolling out new infrastructure or busy fixing what is broken in existing environments. So, that most grave of errors are made…instead of really solving the problem, they force the customer to adapt their way of working to fit their reseller solution set. This is the origin of “architecture by evolution” and every new problem simply gets a plaster from the box we used previously. So, the sales guys get to play golf with the vendor based on their sales success, and the technical guys simply get to support more of the same infrastructure. Based on the “success” of this process, it simply repeats itself, ad infinitum to a point where I believe most enterprises run the same “template” for infrastructure.

I have reached the point where I am genuinely surprised when asking a customer about their general infrastructure and they give a “non standard” answer. It puts a huge smile on my face, giving me hope that we are trying to solve problems in a unique and customer specific way, ¬†not in a sheepish way, following the herd rolling out the same old template.

Thinking caps on folks! Don’t be afraid to think outside the boxes provider by the well known tech vendors.

No lock in. At all. Ever

Quickly logged in to my mobile phone provider account this morning. My Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE device, running CyanogenMod, is getting a bit long in the tooth. Eagerly logged in to have a look at the new phone models available (time for a Sony, or another Samsung?), imagine my shock and disgust when I realized that I am only due for a free upgrade days before Christmas this year. I stared in disbelieve at the date, looking at the accumulated bill in front of me, amounting to thousands per month. Surely this cannot be? I spend big bucks per month, so surely my phone is not an expense but an enabler? Allow me to elaborate. I burn in excess of 1000 minutes per month, spend a couple of GB’s of data (despite wireless all over my office and home) and even pop off a few text messages a month. Making sure that I have a top flight phone should be an investment not an expense! In fact, giving me a free phone once a year would great. And not a “free” phone, but a real free phone.

This got me thinking…do business execs ever place them in the shoes of their own customers? How do you think our local Telco exec’s would feel, having to spend two years waiting for the next “free” phone while shiny new tech comes along every day, and 6 months is an almost acceptable replacement cycle for certain tech goodies? Getting phones for free as an R&D expense is nice if your a telco exec, but for the rest of us it is torture…

So, customer lock in. This used to be a very acceptable business model, and it is easy to see why. 20 years to pay of a house, 5 years for a car, 2 years for that new “free” cellphone etc. So many services force you to be locked in for a fixed, minimum period. Don’t think I can easily cancel or reduce my golf driving range membership. No sir, despite your current work schedule and minor health issue, you cannot cancel or “park” your membership, locked-in you are. Order a local ADSL service from our monopoly provider and get a “free” wifi ADSL router, if sir will just sign here and be locked in for 2 years. Crazy!

Why does this happen? I now believe it is because many companies do not have the means and wherewithal to effectively compete in a constantly changing business environment. Why drive ourselves to constantly innovate and delight our customers, when we can just lock the suckers into a term contract? I hope the boardroom talk is not as blunt as that…

But, the world has changed. Even things like cloud computing platforms who bill you on a pay-as-you-go basis have you locked in, because getting your apps and data in and out is difficult or in some cases impossible. Thus while it is easy to turn your billing on and off, moving providers in not that easy.

Now take pity on my poor business partner for what I am about to say. Not only are we entering a new competitive market space, but achieving lock-in has never been part of my design or business plan. Why? Simple, I imagined myself as my own customer. How would I feel if I am locked into some sub standard and slow service? I’d be hopping mad, frustrated and ultimately tell all and sundry to avoid such a platform like the plague. No, the way I want to keep customers is by making it easy to get on my platform, make it easy to use, quick to provision, bill using modern flexible methods, and finally make it easy to leave if you are unhappy. Risky? Not all, if I constantly delight you, and charge you a reasonable rate, why would you want to move, I gave you no reason too ūüôā Will we have churn, sure, but those customers will also return when they go and try the alternatives and realize how easy getting in and out was with us. The pressure will be on us to delight and surprise our customers, keeping them with us out of loyalty due to the great service and deal they get.

On that note, a shout out to my peeps (Wilfred, Christian, Johan et all) at O’Galito’s Centurion. This Portuguese style restaurant has delighted me for almost 10 years. Last night I took some family there and we had a blast, great service and food. They have never dropped me once, which is why if you do business with me, are a friend or family, you’ll end up there with me sooner or later… Obrigado!

Competing with the big boys

Years ago, my dad and I would sit and talk about the logic behind buying a business, and competing with established players in a particular market. He would always ask why you would buy and existing business, when you can open up shop across the street, offering a better deal and thus gaining the business for “free”. It is not always as easy as that, and entering a new market, or one with established players in not for the faint hearted. Why make a radical change in our business? Well, the old adapt or die saying is super true in our case. While we are far from dead, the writing is on the wall and before we go on life support, we’d rather change what we do. Several things have changed in our industry, and I firmly believe the “reseller” model is going the way of the dinosaur. Buying a piece of technology developed by someone else and slapping a single digit markup on it to sell it to an end user customer is just not sustainable. Just ask the big players who love their turnover vanity (big numbers) but are operating on annual losses. Getting out of that game is our drive. While we’ll be buying loads of fancy legos, how we piece them together and what we do with them will be our competitive edge. To busy to improve? Entering a space with a few players seems to give some investors comfort, as they think that while they may not get to dominate a market, they can view a slice of an established business sector that is known to work. Less risky… Geoffrey A. Moore wrote a bunch of amazing books about high tech marketing, and how you deal with the Gorillas on Main street, the entrenched and well established players. You also get guys like Richard Branson, who enter established markets (airlines, railways, cellular) and bring a fresh approach to an old idea. I think the cloud computing market is set for a big shake up in South Africa, and the rest of Africa too. The question is, how do you compete with massive and established players such as Amazon, and up and coming players with loads of resources, like Google and Microsoft. It is not as difficult as you may think…Each of the new up and coming players painted a big target on Amazon’s back, and they have claimed some wins. Google is now renowned for how quickly they actually start instances up, and some flexibility with their services that Amazon does not have. One has to remember, that Amazon built the first of these mega platforms, and the IT world collectively crapped themselves. Loads of cloud stack vendors now try and at least mimic the Amazon feature set, as that does provide a good baseline of functionality. Amazon now also have a massively scaled, but “legacy” system, so turning that big ship around to plug some holes is not as easy as it seems. This creates opportunities for players like us, and that is why we’ll thrive in this business. Where does this leave me and my new platform? I do not have dreams of global domination, but I do dream of African domination. The time is right for a new innovative player to enter the local market, breaking the mould in terms of service offering, service experience, ease of use and feature set. If all goes well, in 16 weeks our platform launches in V1.0 state, but the V2.0 onwards stuff will blow your mind… I’ll keep the blog updated with our progress…