Why all firms should care about scalability

How much your business can ‘slide its scale’ is everything in the world of cloud.
15 May 2019

The Microsoft CEO (probably) talks about scalability more than profit. Source: AFP

Scalability is one of those stock-standard industry buzzwords that seems to get plastered into every core product set descriptor that all tech vendors use as part of their core communications arsenal.

“Our platform is scalable, by virtue of its cloud-native webscale architecture we can provide a foundation for all organization’s growth and development roadmaps within a framework that is solid and robust at any size of implementation,” reads the general claim to fame of pretty much any tech vendor you care to choose.

This kind of proclamation in the above statement is nice glossy padding if you’re giving a keynote speech or looking to write your next batch of marketing collateral, but what does it really mean in real terms for organizations now looking to make the most of new cloud computing services?

What scalability really means

At its core, scalability refers to the ability for a software program (or database, or analytics engine, or other core software-based entity) to be able to perform at the same level of functionality whatever the size of the data throughput, size of dataset or processing requirement it is subjected to.

Scalability means being able to go up as well as down. So a database architected to ingest millions of log files or some other type of record needs to be able to work on tasks associated with mere thousands or hundreds of records if it is to be scalable— and, of course, vice versa.

Really robust scalability also has to happen within the realms of robust system security. It’s no good opening up a bigger data pipe or subjecting your IT system to a much higher ‘request rate’ if that action ends up compromising the system itself.

This is particularly important for organizations operating in highly-regulated industries in which compliance, security and risk analysis are paramount. Scalability without security is flying blind in the face of danger.

How to be scalable

Any number of management consultancy sources exists to help firms work out exactly how scalable their overall business and technology proposition is at any given time.

Most of these sources will urge companies to look back at their initial business plan to make sure that their so-called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) can validate a long-term position in any given market. For MVP we should also read MVS for Minimum Viable Service, especially in the modern age of cloud computing based service-centric technology.

So what other factors are important here? In our opening ‘comedy exaggeration’ scalability quote we used the term ‘webscale’.

Also sometimes written as web-scale, this is an increasingly popular term used by the technology industry to convey the concept of any given IT installation being eminently and exceptionally scalable. It means, if you will, as wide as the web itself.

Outsource and automate

Webscale IT systems are built to serve firms’ current and future needs with an inherent cloud-native, cloud-first approach. It’s important to remind ourselves that public cloud services are essentially a means of outsourcing IT services— and the outsourcing factor is important for scalability.

Where organizations can continue to outsource parts of their supply chain, they can logically spend more time focusing on their core competencies… and so be more ready for scalable shifts when and if they happen.

What we’re really seeing in new digital business operations is a shift by firms to what has been called an ‘enterprise operating model’, i.e. this is the notion of a more componentized, broken apart (yet still integrated) business that can segment itself as needed to serve the demands of a changing market at any given time.

As Gartner analyst Lee Weldon has said, “Scaling a digital business requires a fully-aligned strategy and enterprise operating model. An enterprise operating model is the manner in which an organization aligns its assets— people and culture, information, technology, ecosystems and capital structures— with a particular business model.”

The need for inherent scalability throughout every organization is characterizing the modern nature of business. CEOs used to stand around at cocktail parties asking each other how their profit status was looking, but that question is changing, and scalability is becoming even ‘sexier’ than profit forecasts.

The web and the cloud are big, it matters how much you can slide your scale.