Why ‘behind the scenes’ technology is the real hero of 2020

Neil Sayer, Azure solutions architect at Jisc, believes the pandemic has served as a major accelerator for digital transformation

As organisations across the world adapt to the implications of COVID-19, cloud-based systems have been thrust into the limelight. From entertainment services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, to video conferencing tools including Zoom and Teams, cloud-based solutions have been a saving grace for the house-bound over the last six months.

Cloud computing was in use in education long before the pandemic, but digital transformation – particularly in the public sector – has been accelerated due to the subsequent increase in remote working and learning. Worldwide spending on cloud computing has skyrocketed from US$117bn in 2018 to US$162bn in 2020.

Although front-end technologies have gained the most mainstream coverage, they would not be able to function without the underlying infrastructure. As Jeff Arden, president of 2nd watch, a Seattle-based managed cloud consultancy, says in CRN Magazine: “Right now, everything is doom and gloom out there, but the majority of companies have been able to continue to operate because of the cloud.”

Cheaper, faster, stronger

When it comes to transitioning to and working with public cloud, simplicity is a key driver. Users want to spend as little time as possible writing and formatting code. The ability to quickly deploy solutions such as virtual machines (VMs) is of great importance for time-sensitive projects, and has been a key tool in the fast turnaround to online delivery caused by COVID-19. Infrastructure as Code (IaC) allows sections of code to be copied and reused to deploy infrastructure more efficiently. For example, when spinning up multiple virtual machines (VMs), such as in a research setting, with traditional architecture, each machine would need to be built individually, but with IaC, code can be repurposed, saving time and money. This is key for education institutions that have faced ongoing budget cuts, and resource restriction through lockdown.

Infrastructure tools are also becoming more and more accessible, both to seasoned IT professionals and to wider audiences. For instance, Microsoft has just released a new Domain Specific Language (DSL), Project Bicep. The new language aims to make IaC easier to write, read and manipulate, making it more accessible.

The automation features of IaC also reduce the risk of human error and security violations, making the operation safer, and reducing costs associated with security issues. With many organisations also having to operate with reduced teams and resources due to COVID-related sickness or shielding, being able to automate processes is useful in managing workload.

Safety by design

As with all cloud deployment, security is a key consideration. IaC can be written to exact specifications, so care must be taken to ensure vulnerabilities are not built in. Security features can be embedded early on in the development lifecycle.

However, there are some ‘gotchas’ which need to be avoided when using IaC. These include the use of secure usernames and passwords of privileged accounts which might lead to unauthorised access. For instance, the code may include a connection string to a database. If passwords and usernames are included in this code, there is a risk that unauthorised users would have access to that database, which could hold any number of different data, including sensitive information about staff and students. Similarly, ensuring that administrative ports are not open to the internet will guard against malicious actors being able to access the network.

Adaptable, flexible, visible

The visibility of infrastructure deployed through IaC means that consistency and quality of resources is easier to control, and importantly for many, it’s easily scalable, meaning organisations can simply pay for what they use, rather than committing to long-term contracts. This is particularly useful for organisations that are unsure of long-term needs or budgets.

When the education sector is finally able to look back on the pandemic, despite the extraordinary challenges it has faced, there is also a good chance it will be remembered as an accelerator for digital transformation, and particularly for cloud adoption. While the general public is most likely to recall fond memories of curling up and watching Netflix, or engaging with learning, work and social time through Zoom and Teams, it’s these ‘behind the scenes’ technologies that are the unseen heroes.

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