‘Digital transformation’ is a moving target. Described variously by industry watchers as “the adoption of digital technology by a company… to improve efficiency, value or innovation,” as referring to anything from IT modernization (for example, cloud computing), to digital optimization, to the invention of new digital business models,” or even as “a rethinking of how an organization uses technology, people and processes in pursuit of new business models and new revenue streams, driven by customer expectations around products and services,” the term (DX) is broad in meaning and elusive in discussion. Analysts have developed multiple taxonomies to distinguish ‘digitization’ from ‘digitalization,’ and “digitization at scale” from “connecting digital processes into fluid digital capabilities” with predictable results: no one is exactly sure what the term references. Given this heady mix of explication, a more useful line of attack is to understand the concept in context, as the adoption of digital solutions to achieve a certain outcome, and the DX organization as one with specific characteristics that lay a pathway to change.
This more practicable approach to DX was in high gear at the GCDCDS21 morning session: Digital Transformation: In Pursuit of Innovation, which focused on the transformed infrastructure foundation that enables enhanced digital capabilities, and on its enablement of innovation more broadly.
Andrew Eppich, managing director, Equinix Canada, launched the session with an update on Equinix activity in the wake of last year’s near billion dollar investment in 13 Bell Canada data centres. According to Eppich, this investment represents a key piece in Equinix strategy around connecting the digital core, the ecosystem that data centres link with, and the digital edge – a elemental process that can drive client’s digital transformation. To enact this strategy, the company has “Equinized” the new data centres, interconnecting them with each other, and with additional, diverse networks to create a carrier neutral infrastructure resource that also connects to the existing Equinix platform in 27 different countries – and with this, to multiple service providers wherever they operate. For Canadian digital first customers, this data sovereign “fabric” provides secure infrastructure as well as ready access to global partners, and an ability to enable new local delivery capability via Equinix edge nodes. Citing the company’s Global Interconnectivity Index, Eppich argued that while a cloud first strategy can serve to optimize infrastructure, a digital first strategy optimizes business: to achieve success in a post covid world, businesses must be prepared with a flexible, digital architecture that can take advantage of the kind of private, interconnected infrastructure offered by Equinix.
“We are setting down Canada’s digital core,” Eppich explained. “The network is foundational… and once you have the digital core, it’s a team sport. Digital transformation cannot happen in isolation – there’s no such thing as a threaded service that doesn’t have multiple participants, as well as multiple partners to prop it up. Digital participation is enabled by the interconnection of these ecosystems.”
In a broader discussion, featuring Jason Hood (CTO – field, Stratascale), Sanj Srikrishnan (senior global solutions architect, Equinix), Joe Belinsky (VP IT, Revera Inc.), and James Hursthouse (CSO AMPD), panel facilitator Michael O’Neil (cybersecurity research lead, Stratascale) probed digital transformation concepts through a series of questions designed to identify key characteristics and priorities of businesses that are DX enabled.
In a world where digital business is business, are senior execs focused on cost management or speed and agility as the key to delivering value, and are they willing to accept risk associated the latter?
In his work as IT lead with several large, US based organizations, Jason Hood, has seen an increasing tendency towards the integration of IT and business strategy. “People see the value in what IT brings, they are part of the business operation… We used to call the developers ‘shadow IT’ and now we call them ‘citizen developers’ as we bring them forward into the mainstream, and build out structures that will let them operate. What we are seeing now is work to move faster, and in a more agile way, and an acceptance of the risk that is part of this.
As the citizen development side of things grows, there’s a shift from IT being the provider of everything to being the guideposts, who provide rails that allow people to move quickly in that space. There has been some conversation [in the panel] around people moving back from the cloud to on-premise: but it’s better to think of cloud not as a location, but as a construct of tools that allow you to be quick and agile and successful. More and more, I see that IT is not the builder, but more the integrator, the provider of rails. The CISO in an organization used to be all about locking everything down, but now the role has changed to one of making sure that everything is enabled. So, making sure the tools are available, but making sure that it’s easy to do business with IT.”
According to technology strategist Joe Belinsky, this transition has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has made this a little bit easier. Before there was fear, and in technology, fear of rapid change. When the pandemic hit, we went remote, and implemented Teams in three months as opposed to a year and a half because it was a mandate – you had to. In my organization, the propensity and appetite for change has grown. Another thing that has happened is that we have democratized [meetings/collaboration]. Over the past year, many of us have worked 100% remotely: in 2019, people were struggling with AV and people thought Zoom was something you could do on the highway. Today we have a new language that we use to communicate, and the challenge is hybrid because remote is pretty easy.
In my organization, we are almost 100% cloud and SaaS – my IT department doesn’t do Dev/Ops, we do ‘I/Ops’, or integration with cloud services. We look to the team at Equinix to run the data centre, and other folks to operate the infrastructure. My current role is running at the application layer, and I just need to ensure that the networks work. If anyone questions whether the Internet was a reliable network, over the last year we ran everything over the Internet: home networks were resilient – it just worked. If ever there was an acid test for global network connectivity, we’ve just lived through it.”
Speed and agility are paramount in the digital business world to support core processes, the introduction of new systems, to keep us connected, or even to host parallel worlds. What’s involved in making this a reality for businesses looking to innovate at scale?
For his part, Sanj Srikrishnan urged caution in defining a single pathway to DX, advising that businesses maintain flexibility, and that providers deliver the infrastructure that can support this flexibility. “I’m going to give you another perspective – and point to one of the largest venture capitalist funds out there, to the Andreessen paper on the Trillion Dollar Paradox of Cloud. What they say is that scalability is fantastic. The cloud gives you the ability to innovate. You can do a lot of things really quickly. But it’s not the be all and the end all. There comes an inflection point where they recommend that all of their clients flip to physical infrastructure – from OPEX to CAPEX. But don’t be rigid about it. Be open enough to pivot back and forth – to go to with what works for your business at a particular point in time. If you think about citizen developers, they are the subject matter experts – they know what they need to be successful. Listen to them, but ensure that your digital infrastructure is nimble enough to support that.
To speak to Joe’s point about the Internet, that’s what a digital ecosystem is, and it works perfectly for regional connectivity. But the moment you are talking about 60 milliseconds of latency plus, coast to coast – and this is a unique issue for western Canada – you have a fundamental challenge. The Internet as a delivery mechanism has a non-deterministic path, so the variability destroys most old applications. If your application is up to date, and is designed in a proper, secure manner, and with full distribution capabilities, now you are playing with fire.”
A special question posed for James Hursthouse: what do you mean by the metaverse, and what’s involved in hosting it?
A long term interactive and game technology entrepreneur, James Hursthouse was able to speak directly and eloquently to the kind of innovation enabled by advanced, cloud-based network infrastructure. And to describe the game inspired web revolution that is commanding the attention of investors on a global basis.
“For us, the term ‘metaverse’ has been around for about 16 years, though the term is now finding it’s place in the sun. Back in 2007, I contributed to a whitepaper called The Metaverse Roadmap, and even back then it was clear that the video game universe viewed itself as being pioneers of quite a lot of what’s come into fruition now. There’s a phrase in this space, which is that video games write the first draft of history – it’s things like game engine technology, game platform, currencies….
When you look at metaverse now, the reason why it is gathering so much attention is this combination of technologies that’s really unlocked what people are describing as the next iteration of the entire Internet. There’s a very active venture capitalist in this space called Mathew Ball who says that the metaverse serves as the functional successor to the web. Only this time because it’s fully 3D, and it’s fully immersive, and because it’s a single space, how much of it will be generated as a 3D world remains to be seen. So, a functional successor to the current web, only this time with much greater reach, more time spent in commercial activity, generating even greater economic upside.
People are saying that the metaverse, when it’s fully manifested, will be the gateway to pretty much every digital experience, and a key component of physical ones. A lot of the other speakers have been talking about the requirement for edge-based computing – that’s driving AR, or spectacles – so it’s not just a virtual space. It’s a blending with the real world as well. And many people would describe it as the next great labour platform – if you look at NFT, crypto, or ‘play to earn’ on blockchain where users are able to play and increase real world value, that’s the precursor to the labour platform of the future.
More food for thought
Panelists had more to say on the practical alignment of infrastructure and innovation as a means to digital transformation. To hear more on the following questions, tune in to the video presentation provided below.
In the panel, we’ve heard about the rapid sprawl of data, and points of presence: how do you connect the dots across various platforms?
We’ve talked about the metaverse, about the distribution of capabilities and applications and data to edge, the notion that all business decisions have a technology component, about a shift from core, tightly managed infrastructure to self-service edge. How much of this is real?
What are the impacts of metaverse for individuals, businesses, or even countries?
How do you describe the critical links between modernization of critical infrastructure and innovation, and what needs to be built into the foundation?
 Eugene Roman in GCDCS21 morning keynote presentation,
 Michael O’Neil in GCDCS21 Digital Transformation presentation, https://youtu.be/mgEnz4wfQf0