Containers: Power & Scale

by Richard Hands, Technical Architect

In my last blog post, we looked at the background of Containers. In this piece, we will explore what they can do and their power to deliver modern microservices.

What can they do?

Think of containers on a ship.  This is the most readily used visual analogy for containers. A large quantity of containers, all holding potentially different things, but all sitting nice and stable on a single infrastructure platform, gives a great mental picture to springboard from.

Containers are to Virtual Machines, what Virtual Machines were to straight physical hardware.  They are a new layer of abstraction, which allows us to get more ‘bang for our buck’.  In the beginning, we had dedicated hardware, which performed its job well, but in order to scale your solution you had to buy more hardware. This was difficult and expensive. Along came Virtual Machines, which allowed us to utilise much more commoditised hardware, and scale up within that, by adding more instances of a VM, but again, this still came with quite a cost.

To spin up a new VM, you have to ensure that you have enough remaining hardware on the VM servers. If you are using subscription or licensed operating systems, you have to consider that etc.  Now along comes containers. These containers literally contain only the pieces of code, and libraries necessary, to run their particular application. They rely on the underlying Infrastructure of the machine they are running on (be it physical or virtual).  We can typically run 10-20x more containers PER HOST than if we were to try putting the same application directly on the VM, and scale up by scaling the number of VM’s.

Orchestration for power

Containers help us solve the problems of today in far more bite-sized chunks than ever before.  They lend themselves perfectly to microservices.  Being able to write a microservice, and then build a container that holds just that microservice and its supporting architecture, be it spring boot, wildfly swarm, vertex, etc., gives us an immense amount of flexibility for development.  The problem comes when you want to orchestrate all of the microservices into a cohesive application, and add in scalability, service reliability, and all of the other pieces that a business requires to run successfully.  Trying to do all of this by hand would be an incomprehensible challenge.

There is a solution however, and it comes in the form of Kubernetes.

Kubernetes is an open-source platform designed to automate deploying, scaling, and operating application containers.” (

Kubernetes gives us a container run environment that allows us to declaratively, rather than imperatively define our run requirements for our application.  Again let’s look back to our older physical or VM models for the imperative definition:

“I need to run my application on that server.”

“I need a new server to run my application on, and it must have x memory and y disk”

This approach always requires justifications, and far more thought around HA considerations such as failover, as we are specifying what we want our application to run on.

Most modern applications, being stateless by design, and certainly containers, don’t generally require that level of detail of the hardware that they are running on. They simply don’t care as they’re designed to be small discrete components which work together with others.  The declarations look more like:

“I want 10 copies of this container running to ensure that I’ve got sufficient load coverage, and I don’t want more than 2 down at any one time.”

“I want 10 copies of this container running, but I want a capability to increase that if cpu or memory usage exceeds x% for y% time, and then return to 10 once load has fallen back below z

These declarations are far more about the level of application service that we want to provide, than about hardware, which in a modern commoditised market, is how things should be.

Kubernetes is the engine, which provides this facility but also so much more. For example with Kubernetes we can declare that we want x and y helper processes co-located with our application, so that we are building composition whilst preserving one application per container.

Auto scaling, load balancing, health checks, replication, storage systems, updates, all of these things can be managed for our container run environment by Kubernetes.  Overall, it is a product that requires far more in depth reading than I can provide in a simple blog post, so I shall let you go and read at

Last thoughts

To conclude, it is evident that containers have already changed the shape of the IT world, and will continue to do so at an exponential pace.  With public, hybrid, and private cloud computing becoming ‘the norm’ for both organisations, and even governments, containers will be the shift which helps us break down the barriers from traditional application development into a true microservices world. Container run systems will help us to break down the old school walls of hardware requirements, thus freeing development to provide true business benefit.

Follow Richard Hands on Twitter to keep up to date with his latest thoughts.

How the Equality Act 2010 affects you

Most of us use online services such as banking, travel and social media everyday with little thought as to how we can access or use them. However, this isn’t the case for many users, including employees.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 legislation, which previously provided protection against direct discrimination, has been updated to the Equality Act 2010 (except Northern Ireland). The Equality Act became legal on 6 April 2011, and changes the law to brings disability, sex, race, and other types of discrimination under one piece of legislation.

One major change is that the Equality Act 2010 now includes perceived disability and in-direct discrimination, making it easier for claimants to bring successful legal proceeding against businesses and public bodies.

What it means

The Equality Act essentially means that all public bodies or businesses providing goods, facilities or services to members of the public, including employees (For example: retail, HR, and councils) must make fair and reasonable adjustments to ensure services are accessible and do not indirectly discriminate. Being fair and reasonable means taking positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access online services. This goes beyond simply avoiding discrimination. It requires service providers to anticipate the needs of disabled customers.

Benefits of compliance

UK retailers are missing out on an estimated £11.75 billion a year in potential online sales because their websites fail to consider the needs of people with disabilities (Click-Away Pound Survey 2016).

In addition, 71% (4.3 million) of disabled online users will simply abandon websites they find difficult to use. Though representing a collective purchasing power of around 10% of the total UK online spend, most businesses are completely unaware they’re losing income, as only 7% of disabled customers experiencing problems contact the business.

How to comply with the Equality Act

The best way to satisfy the legal requirement is to have your website tested by disabled users. This should ideally be undertaken by a group of users with different disabilities, such as motor and cognitive disabilities, and forms of visual impairment. Evidence of successful tests by disabled users could be invaluable in the event of any legal challenge over your website’s accessibility.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is the international organisation concerned with providing standards for the web, and publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), which are a good indicator of what standard the courts would reasonably expect service providers to follow to ensure that their websites are accessible.

WCAG provides three ‘conformance levels’. These are known as Levels A, AA and AAA. Each level has a series of checkpoints for accessibility – known as Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints. Public bodies such as the government adhere to Priority 2 – Level AA accessibility as standard.

According to these standards, websites must satisfy Priority 1 – Level A, satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement and very easy to implement. Priority 2 – Level AA, satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers for customers. Finally, Priority 3 – Level AAA, is the highest level of accessibility and will ensure most disabled customers can access services, and requires specific measures to be implemented.

Read the Equality act 2010 quick start guides to find out more about how this affects you.

Shifting from analogue to digital public services – citizens want joined up public services

I highlighted the positive view citizens have about digital public services in my last blog. And their appetite for more. I now want to address some of their concerns and why doubt the ability of government to continue to deliver.

The digital disruption brought about by new technologies is transforming the interaction between citizens, business and the public sector.

Citizens compare public services with innovative platform business models provided by digital trendsetters like Apple, Google and Amazon. I expect simplicity and even friendliness when I talk to Alexa or Siri.

What did we find? Government needs to join the dots

This year’s research shows that digital public services fall short of the best commercial services. While 64% of UK citizens said digital public services were advanced this falls to just 30% when they are asked to compare them to commercial services.

The UK Government can take some comfort from the comparison with France (18%), Norway (19%) and Germany (20%). And of course, we understand that governments face unique challenges, as ‘customers’ often have no choice when using public services that can be a last resort.  Governments need to address complex and long term needs like the reduction of re-offending or the treatment of chronic health conditions.

But citizens told us of their frustrations about the need to input information many times, including various passwords, the multiple steps needed to access services and an inability track progress. Some of these issues are being addressed by the UK Government, including through new platforms such as Verify and Notify. And they have flagged an intention to ‘improve citizen service across channels’ through a new Transformation (not digital) Strategy.

However, too often governments fail to meet citizen’s expectations when it reproduces its analogue bureaucratic procedures in a digitised way. Siloed service delivery approaches, with multiple websites and fragmented service delivery, organised around internal institutional structures are no longer acceptable. Which is why the number one priority for 44% of the UK citizens surveyed was the creation of a one-stop digital portal for undertaking interactions which need to be performed with multiple agencies (and this was a common priority across France, Norway and Germany).

Improving the experience of citizens in a revolutionary way

Citizens expect their public services to be designed with a user-driven perspective. And to adapt to different user profiles and needs. Through intelligent re-use of data and information previously generated or provided by citizens, governments can shift from reactive to proactive service delivery practices.

In a reactive service, the citizen is always responsible for starting the service demand, properly identifying herself and providing the required information. In a proactive service, the public sector knows its citizens, knows their life circumstances and current needs, and provides them the space to voice and signal their requests and preferences.

This enables the public sector to serve citizens in a personalised fashion about their rights, their duties and the services available. And to reach out to them to receive the authorisation to complete the service on their behalf.

This capacity to collect, combine and process data in a coherent way to better serve citizens must be a key feature of digital public services. And this needs a whole-of-government effort to exchange information across the public sector. With the key building blocks – common architecture, interoperability framework, digital identity system – in place to enable integrated service delivery.

Developing a user-driven approach also implies that the public sector’s capacities, workflows, business processes, operations need to be adapted to the rapidly evolving digital age. The challenge is not to introduce digital technologies but to integrate and embed them right from the start into efforts to modernise services.

I’d like to hear your views on how policies can be made digital by design, mobilising new technologies to rethink and re-engineer processes or open new channels of communication and engagement with citizens. And feel free to get in touch if you’d like more information on our research with Ipsos.

Citizens can feel the benefits of digital public services but are concerned about the ability of government to keep pace with their needs

As companies have transformed themselves with digital technologies, citizens are calling on governments to follow suit.

By digitising, the public sector can provide services that meet the evolving needs of citizens, even in a period of tight budgets and complex challenges.

This is the second year that Sopra Steria has asked the researchers at Ipsos to conduct a survey of 1000 citizens, from a broad range of social groups and across the United Kingdom, to understand their experience of and expectations for digital government. The same survey took place in France, Germany and Norway. So we have an opportunity to compare how citizens in the UK experience digital with others across Europe.

What did we find?

Citizens expect public services to be designed and delivered in a simple and intuitive way.

This year’s research shows that citizens recognise the efforts made by governments to use digital channels to streamline their interactions. 64% of the UK citizens surveyed described digital public services as advanced, compared to just 42% in Germany, 66% in France and 75% in Norway. The UK Government should seek to learn from experience of Norway, which has long used technology to streamline processes.

We asked citizens to describe the current degree of digital service development across Government

Citizens continue to support investment in digital public services. 75% of citizens surveyed in the UK said government should press ahead with plans to digitise public services. 25% described this as ‘an absolute priority’. Health is judged the most important public service to digitise in the future. 54% of citizens in the UK said health was the priority for investment, an increase of 5% in the 12 months since the last survey.

The research found that citizens also recognise the positive impact digital is having on the quality of public services. 58% of the UK citizens surveyed said that the introduction of online channels and services had improved the quality of public services, compared to 53% in France, 65% in Norway and 57% in Germany.

So far, so good – but what about the future of digital public service delivery?

Governments are working on simplifying access through the development of simple organisational hubs for digital government services. Fully developing this approach requires governments to achieve significant levels of interoperability of public sector information systems and, at times, cross-organisational service solutions.

Citizens are cautious when asked about the prospects of making further progress. 47% of the citizens surveyed said they did not believe the public sector had the necessary skills to make progress (which is similar to our own survey of civil servants last year). And France is the only country surveyed where citizens expressed confidence in their government’s will AND ability to continue to make progress.

We asked citizens for their views on the will and ability of governments to make progress with digital public services

The UK might learn from France and other countries that are seeking to introduce incentives across the public sector to help bring down cultural barriers in hierarchical and centralised administrative cultures. And develop a human resources strategy that helps develop, attract and retain vital data skills that facilitate collaboration.

In my next blog I will be looking in more detail at why citizens are so cautious about future prospects for digital public services. And how governments can address their concerns and shift away from the ‘vending machine’ model of service delivery.

In the meantime I’d like to hear your thoughts on the survey, including great examples of digital public services and how obstacles were overcome. And get in touch if you would like further details of the survey.

Make way for accessibility

I recently came across this fascinating report on the help extended by a computer scientist for a little girl with severe memory loss. It is an extraordinary example of the efforts of an individual in addressing an accessibility problem very effectively. Close on the heels of this story, there was the big announcement of a new Microsoft app being released for public use called “Seeing AI”. This app is perhaps one of the most intuitive tools out there for people with visual impairment and has been built with a lot of thought. I remember following this project a couple of years ago and wondering if only such large scale developments can bring about a change, or is it a good idea to keep working  on humble ideas, while not holding our breath for one big change to improve our lives. In reality, we need both just now – big technical corporations investing heavily in researching on ground breaking solutions, as well as small measures from individuals giving their best shot in ensuring someone feels comfortable in their everyday life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Association-UK published a factsheet to mark the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, which indicates a grim situation for people with disabilities. Disabled people are four times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people and the poverty rate is twice as high in comparison too. According to another factsheet published by the Papworth trust, disabled people experience much lower economic living standards than their peers, which is again attributed to increasing rate of unemployment. This deeply concerning trend needs to be immediately addressed on many levels. One of them is to improve the confidence of people with disability in approaching employment opportunities and to provide them with an environment in which they can operate comfortably. Here in Sopra Steria, our Company CEO Vincent Paris has reflected similar thoughts about being an employer with empathy. We have to think of being more proactive in engaging people with disabilities in our work places and also to engage better with those amongst us with disabilities, so they have the motivation to continue in employment. In the context of service industry that we are a part of, we often think about disabled people mainly as our customers/end-users but we have to think of colleagues with such conditions too, facing barriers constantly.

The topic of accessibility is a complex one which is dependent on perceptions of individuals as well as the bigger society, about the idea of disability. It will take a lot of determination to support this topic and we have a long way to go. But this journey can be easier if each one of us stand firmly to make sure accessibility is given its due consideration. Let us make way for accessibility in our lives, as individuals and as professionals, in the world around us.

What are your thoughts? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

AI, VR and the societal impact of technology: our takeaways from Web Summit 2017

Together with my Digital Innovation colleague Morgan Korchia, I was lucky enough to go to Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon – getting together with 60,000 other nerds, inventors, investors, writers and more. Now that a few weeks have passed, we’ve had time to collect our thoughts and reflect on what turned out to be a truly brilliant week.

We had three goals in mind when we set out:

  1. Investigate the most influential and disruptive technologies of today, so that we can identify those which we should begin using in our business
  2. Sense where our market is going so that we can place the right bets now to benefit our business within a 5-year timeframe
  3. To meet the start-ups and innovators who are driving this change and identify scope for collaboration with them

Web Summit proved useful for this on all fronts – but it wasn’t without surprises.  It’s almost impossible to go to an event like this without some preconceptions about the types of technologies we are going to be hearing about. On the surface, it seemed like there was a fairly even spread between robotics, data, social media, automation, health, finance, society and gaming (calculated from the accurate science of ‘what topic each stage focused on’). However, after attending the speeches themselves, we detected some overarching themes which seemed to permeate through all topics. Here are my findings:

  • As many as 1/3rd of all presentations strongly focus on AI – be that in the gaming, finance, automotive or health stage
  • Around 20% of presentations primarily concern themselves with society, or the societal impact of technology
  • Augmented and virtual reality feature in just over 10% of presentations, which is significantly less than we have seen in previous years

This is reflective my own experience at Web Summit, although I perhaps directed myself more towards the AI topic, spending much of my time between the ‘autotech / talkrobot’ stage and the main stage. From Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, to Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel and previously Braintree, we can see that AI is so prevalent today that a return to the AI winter is unimaginable. It’s not just hype; it’s now too closely worked into the fabric of our businesses to be that anymore. What’s more, too many people are implementing AI and machine learning in a scalable and profitable way for it to be dispensable. It’s even getting to the point of ubiquity where AI just becomes software, where it works, and we don’t even consider the incredible intelligence sitting behind it.

An important sub-topic within AI is also picking up steam- AI ethics. A surprise keynote from Stephen Hawking reminded us that while successful AI could be the most valuable achievement in our species’ history, it could also be our end if we get it wrong. Elsewhere, Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0 (recommended by Elon Musk… and me!) provided an interesting exploration of the risks and ethical dilemmas that face us as we develop increasingly intelligent machines.

Society was also a themed visited by many stages. This started with an eye-opening performance from Margrethe Vestager, who spoke about how competition law clears the path for innovation. She used Google as an example, who, while highly innovative themselves, abuse their position of power, pushing competitors down their search rankings to hamper the chances of other innovations from becoming successful. The Web Summit closed with an impassioned speech from Al Gore, who gave us all a call to action to use whatever ability, creativity and funding we have to save our environment and protect society as a whole for everyone’s benefit.

As for AR and VR, we saw far less exposure this year than seen at events previously (although it was still the 3rd most presented-on theme). I don’t necessarily think this means it’s going away for good, although it may mean that in the immediate term it will have a smaller impact on our world than we thought it might. As a result, rather than shouting about it today, we are looking for cases where it provides genuine value beyond a proof of concept.

I also take some interest from the topics which were missing, or at least presented less frequently. Amongst these I put voice interfaces, cyber security and smart cities. I don’t think this is because any of these topics have become less relevant. Cyber security is more important now than ever, and voice interfaces are gaining huge traction in consumer and professional markets. However, an event like Web Summit doesn’t need to add much to that conversation. I think that without a doubt we now regard cyber security as intrinsic to everything we do, and aside from a few presentations including Amazon’s own Werner Vogels, we know that voice is here and that we need to be finding viable implementations. Rather than simply affirming our beliefs, I think a decision was made to put our focus elsewhere, on the things we need to know more about to broaden our horizons over the week.

We also took the time to speak to the start-ups dotted around the event space.  Some we took an interest in like Nam.r, who are using AI in a way which drives GDPR compliance, rather than causing the headache many of us assume it may result in. Others like and are making use of primary technological developments, which were formative and un-scalable a year ago. We also took note of the start-ups spun out of bigger businesses, like Waymo, part of Google’s Alphabet business, which is acting as a bellwether on which many of the big players are placing their bets.

The priority for us now is to build some of these findings into our own strategy- much more of a tall order than spending a week in Lisbon absorbing.  If you’re wondering what events to attend next year, Web Summit should be high up on your list, and I hope to see you there!

What are your thoughts on these topics? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Learn more about Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, and the topics that we are researching.

A Digital Future for Joined Up Local Services

Originally published as a guest blog on techUK Insights

We now view the world through a digital lens, with social media, smartphones and the internet creating a complex future that we must all embrace to survive. We see disruptive technologies, not just changing, but in many instances totally replacing the previous world order. For councils this is leading not only to an immediate need to adapt the way essential services are delivered, but it also raises additional questions about how councils provide community leadership, local democracy, economic growth and cultural change in a constantly and rapidly changing environment.

Councils have a long and successful history of adapting to meet the regular challenges placed before them. In recent years we have seen councils rise to the challenge of delivering crucial and critical services in times of deep austerity. These financial challenges still continue and the world around us is changing with citizens’ needs, demands and expectations increasing, often driven by new technologies. To meet these new challenges the ‘council of the future’ no longer just needs to change the way it delivers traditional services but it also has to reconsider its very role and purpose.

Councils are beginning to forge new rules of engagement, realising that when we talk of a digital future it is not just about technology change but also about social, cultural and business change. The ‘council of the future’ must provide the local leadership to successfully navigate these rocky waters on behalf of and alongside their individual communities.

At Sopra Steria we observe digital change across all sectors and would make the following observations as to the key factors that will support the ‘council of the future’.

Strong leadership is essential to managing change that will be predominantly measured by community outcomes. We see the priority for councils being their continued development as the primary leaders of ‘place’, coordinating and organising effective partnerships across all agencies to provide whole life, effective services that fully meet citizen expectations. Citizens increasingly demand joined up services and will increasingly expect seamless delivery paths. Key areas to address are seamless health and care journeys, increasing citizen confidence in law and order and effective integration of local transport.

This view of the future is supported by the annual digital government survey that IPSOS undertakes on behalf of Sopra Steria to understand citizen expectations of digital services. Consistently the highest priority in the UK has been the ‘creation of a one-stop digital portal for undertaking interactions which need to be performed with multiple agencies’.

Data is the bedrock for change – effective management of complex data will support not only the effective delivery of services, but it will allow greater interoperability between agencies. Clear information dashboards will both inform management processes but also improve democratic transparency.

Digital platforms need to be implemented that use cloud based technologies to reduce the dependence on fixed infrastructures which will reduce the cost of change and allow the development of agile and dynamic solutions.

Automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence will increasingly be introduced to improve business processes, improve digital communication channels and to release human resources to higher value activities. An example of a successful implementation of this was the introduction of self service and automation to support the delivery of Shepway Council’s Revenue and Benefits service.

Social engagement will increasingly use social media as a channel of choice for the solving of community problems, provision of information and to enhance the democratic process.

For many the digital future has already arrived so the ‘council of the future’ needs to prepare to lead their community and place to a new prosperity based on new technologies, new cultures and new ways of delivering business that fully meet the demanding expectations of their citizens.

Join the discussion on #CounciloftheFuture To see more blogs like this, please visit the website here.

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.