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.

Blockchain in a post GDPR World

Blockchain’s explosive growth has had businesses all over the globe scrambling to invest. But with GDPR fast approaching, how will an unchangeable database cope with the right to be forgotten?

How do you inflate your share price by 400% in a day? The answer is simple: add the word blockchain to your company’s name. As absurd as these figures seem, this is actually what happened last October to venture capitalist firm On-line Plc, following their decision to alter their name to On-line Blockchain Plc.

Olivia Green - Article

This shocking report is an accurate reflection of the current level of hype surrounding this new technology, with companies left, right and centre moving to adopt blockchain. A reported 57% of large UK corporations now have immediate plans to implement blockchain into their infrastructure by the end of 2018, while demand for blockchain specialists has nearly tripled in the last year alone. But while organisations have been avidly investing in this new phenomenon, they have also (rather more reluctantly) been preparing for an equally important, but slightly less exciting, development in the tech world: GDPR.

Much of the hype surrounding blockchain has been garnered because it is an immutable method of storing information- meaning that once information is loaded onto the blockchain, it cannot be edited or deleted. However, come May 2018, this unique feature may bring more pain than joy to businesses, as one of the most significant clauses in GDPR comes into effect: the right to be forgotten. This stipulates that individuals have the right to insist that organisations erase any personal information they hold on them. Apply this clause to blockchain, and the result is a non-compliant system and a £17 million fine. So what options do businesses have?

Edit the uneditable

One answer is to change blockchain itself. Accenture, for example, have recently patented an “editable” version of blockchain, which can be altered under certain circumstances by pre-ordained parties- a modification that could be easily moulded into being GDPR compliant and, at first sight, an appealingly easy solution.

However, there are some problems with this approach. As critics have pointed out, one of blockchain’s key (and unique) values is its immutability. It is this feature, making it immune to certain kinds of malicious interference such as misappropriation of assets or fraudulent financial reporting, that gives it so much appeal. By allowing even the possibility of interference, its trustworthiness as an absolute source of information is diminished. For organisations such as banks and other financial institutions, who are anxious to utilise the power of blockchain to build trust and protect against this kind of interference, an “editable blockchain” is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution.

Legal loopholes

For those who are either unwilling or unable to adopt an editable model, legal solutions may be sufficient. GDPR itself offers no explanation as to what “erasure” actually constitutes, and, while this might seem obvious at first sight, it could be an opportunity.  In the past, for example, some authorities have ruled that encryption can legally be equal to deletion- that is, if data is irreversibly encrypted, it is considered to be erased.  It is possible to apply mechanisms like this to data stored on blockchain, via encrypting pieces of data and then “losing” the decryption key- effectively meaning that the information can never be read.

However, this is a risky solution for organisations. As the data is not actually deleted in this process, but simply rendered inaccessible, it may be vulnerable to future technological developments able to break into its encryption (quantum computing, for example). With this in mind, it is likely that European authorities will insist on a strictly all-or-nothing interpretation of data deletion- meaning that relying on mechanisms such as encryption to achieve compliance would be dangerous.

Going off-grid

If neither of these options suffices, businesses can take a more extreme route: remove personal data from the blockchain completely. This does not necessarily mean disposing of blockchain too- one possible workaround, described in more depth here, reduces blockchain to a simple “access control medium”; instead of storing personal information on the chain, links to external databases containing said information can be placed in blocks. As the rules of blockchain no longer apply in these external databases, any information stored like this could be freely deleted or changed at will. The benefits of this approach are clear- it allows for full, uncontested erasure of data, while still retaining some of the functionality of blockchain.

However, as with other options, this is still not a wholly satisfying solution. It creates an inefficient, complex process, and reduces transparency over who is accessing personal data and how- paradoxically creating even more hurdles to GDPR compliance, which also requires that organisations must have accessible and transparent processes for data management. Additionally, removing data from the immutable environment of blockchain gives rise to the same problems faced by Accenture’s “editable blockchain”; external databases can be altered or subjected to fraudulent interference, and so the trustworthiness of the system is undermined.

An uncertain future

So where does this leave organisations who use blockchain? The answer, at this stage, is frustratingly unclear. Every solution detailed above involves either sacrificing the functionality (and benefits) of blockchain or risking the security of personal data. The latter is hardly an attractive option, and if organisations must transform the blockchain beyond recognition to become compliant with GDPR, it begs the question- what is the point in using the blockchain at all? Yet it is hardly practical for authorities to demand that organisations simply stop using blockchain, given its soaring popularity, proven benefits and widespread adoption.

In ethical terms, Blockchain’s immutability is a paradox: on the one hand, it helps to prevent corruption, fraud and theft; on the other, it removes the individual’s rights over his or her personal information. This paradox makes it a complicated system to legislate effectively for, and the current tensions are symptomatic of lawmakers’ struggles to keep up with new developments in the fast-paced and ever-changing world of technology. In this case, it may not just be businesses that need to adapt; legislators too may need to take an iterative and flexible approach to GDPR.

Come May 2018, reconciling GDPR and blockchain will likely be just one challenge among many for both corporations and legislators. Yet as blockchain becomes ever more tightly wound into the infrastructure of major organisations around the globe, it is not a challenge that either can afford to ignore.

Making the case for a better employee experience

by Claudia Quinton, Head of Workplace Transformation

A happy employee is a productive employee: one likely to stay with you for the long term. I think we can all agree with that sentiment. But what does it take to make your employees happy?

In a new opinion paper on HR transformation and employee experience*, I consider the commercial impact of keeping your workforce engaged and yes, happy. I look at the business case for the HR and business process transformation needed to put your employees at the heart of today’s increasingly digital workplace. And I ask whether the enabling technologies underpinning this transformation are worth investing in.

The truth of the matter is that, in the battle for talent, a heightened employee experience is everything. I argue that with outcomes such as improved productivity, reduced employee attrition rates and an empowered workforce committed to your customers, the transformation business case pretty much writes itself.

Re-designing services demands teamwork

But pulling together all the different elements of this business case is not just the task of HR. The outcomes are clearly strategic, so the onus is on HR to work with business, finance and technology leaders. Together, they must balance the cost of what it will it take to deliver re-designed services (process automation, self-service, etc.) with the commercial outcomes. And the scales are weighted in favour of those outcomes.

As an example, let me take the reduction in employee attrition resulting from people feeling empowered by simple, standardised processes that are easy and quick to engage with. One estimate suggests that UK organisations alone are losing £340bn from employee attrition. Thus, the longer you can retain talented employees, the better for your bottom line. Here we can see HR (employee retention) combining with business (improved productivity), technology (automation) and finance (the bottom line) coming together within a single business case.

Using technology to improve processes

Outcomes are pivotal in all of this. For example, the deployment of robotics, automation and process improvement can reduce HR Back Office administration by 50% or more. HR managers freed up by robotic process automation taking over labour-intensive tasks, or robots (chatbots) handling simple queries, can play a more strategic role in the business. And, a process by which an automated artificial intelligence (AI) tool checks a leave request against a team’s booked leave will give an almost real-time response to the employee, enabling people to better manage their time.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that by using automation, smart tech and AI, it’s possible to help smooth the flow of processes and remove unnecessary manual activity, making people happy to come into work. But these outcomes must be clearly communicated and understood across the organisation. This will ensure, firstly, that there is board-level acceptance of the need to invest in change, and second, that those people using the improved, automated process and enabling technology – your employees – understand the impact (and value) of this transformation on their own workplace experience.

For more on this, read my opinion paper ‘A transformation business case that writes itself – download here.

Trip of a lifetime

Tyler is one of Sopra Steria UK’s Volunteers of the Year. As Volunteer of the Year 2017, he will travel to India to visit our international award-winning Community programmes run by our India CSR team. Each year, Sopra Steria India CSR programmes puts around 70,000 children through school, while also providing free lunches, access to drinking water and toilet facilities, and a huge number of other educational and social benefits.

Tyler Quote

It’s been just over two months since I was chosen to be a Volunteer of the Year and despite all the planning, bookings and visa applications, the feeling that I’m leaving in less than a week to a place that is more than five thousand miles away is still yet to sink in.

Last year I gave over 450 hours of my time though two voluntary roles. Most of this time is spent as a Special Constable with Northamptonshire Police. A role of great variety. I often take on the role of a Crime Prevention Officer, working with the victims of fraud, particularly cyber and online scams, helping them to be safe and confident online and on the phone. I also volunteer with the British Red Cross as an Emergency Responder attending to both small and large emergencies. Thankfully large-scale emergencies are rare and most callouts are to domestic floods or fires, where I provide practical and emotional support to who lose their homes and possessions in what can be their greatest hour of need.

I’ve known for a while that Sopra Steria’s Social Responsibility program has been doing great work with young people in India. Community Matters week passes all to quickly in the office and besides a bit of fun, a good conscience and light feeling in my wallet; I wasn’t all too sure of the difference it went on to make. Starting this journey, I did not realise the sheer volume of good we are achieving because of events like these. Each year 70,000 children are sent to school by the program; the brightest of which are sponsored through University. We operate clean water initiatives, run career development centres, offer self-defence courses for young women and a thousand other schemes for good besides.

I’m truly humbled to have been chosen as a Volunteer of the Year and to be able to take this trip of a lifetime. I will see the opening of new schools; dine with University graduates that Sopra Steria has sponsored since their very first day of school. I will meet teachers we have trained in technology and computing to prepare the next generation for work in the modern world and understand how we are challenging social factors to stop these young minds being plucked from school and put to work. In just a few day’s time I will be travelling across India to see the inspiring good work that we, as a company, are doing and the difference it makes to lives of real children elsewhere in the world.

Volunteer of the Year

Robert is one of Sopra Steria UK’s Volunteers of the Year. As Volunteer of the Year 2017, he will travel to India next week to visit our international award-winning Community programmes run by our India CSR team. Each year, Sopra Steria India CSR programmes puts around 70,000 children through school, while also providing free lunches, access to drinking water and toilet facilities, and a huge number of other educational and social benefits.

Robert - Volunteer Quote

Having been an active volunteer for many years, supporting schools, colleges and universities as well as many STEM events through the #IET and #STEM Ambassador program, I’m really looking forward to visiting the #Soprasteria India CSR programs and learning first hand how much benefit and life improvement the students gain from our support.

Sopra Steria have rewarded me with this excellent opportunity after learning about all the efforts myself and the #IETSwindon team have put in to our activity program each year, and in particular our prestige event of support for #RIAT and the technozone at the Royal International Air Tattoo hosted at RAF Fairford each year. Over 3 days we have between 4,000 and 5,000 visitor’s through our stand enjoying all the hands on activities to encourage students to learn more about science and technology subjects (STEM).


I will be heading to India on Monday 12th February to see the amazing work our Sopra Steria India Foundation does. I’m looking forward to learning more about the culture and helping the students with any tech questions they may have. As part of my volunteer work, I see first hand how important it is for students to have access to technology and how excited they are by seeing tech in action. It is by showcasing the opportunities tech can provide that we grow the next generation of STEM leaders.

Follow my journey on Twitter or be sure to check back on this blog for my write up post the 10 day trip.

Containers: Why the hype?


Now you might be wondering ‘why all the hype’ about containers?  The truth is you probably got to this blog from a container without even knowing it. As far back as May 2014, Google were proudly announcing that ‘Everything at Google runs in a container’.  Your searches, Gmail, Calendar, apps, all of it. In 2014 Google was starting over 2 billion containers a week, which if you do your maths, averages out at over 3,000 containers started per second!  And that was in 2014, can you imagine, with the growth of the mobile phone market, how many containers they start per second now?

Containers aren’t exactly new anymore, but they’re definitely a buzz-word of the moment. They are of extreme importance in both our industry, and to the IT world at large, so let’s take a look at where they came from.

Where did they come from…

Containers started back in the early noughties, when Google donated the cgroups technology to the Linux Kernel and it was accepted.  Combining the segregation/aggregation capabilities of cgroups with network namespaces, and LXC or LinuX Containers were born.

Containers back then, however, required an expert level of tech knowledge to utilise, and sat on the back burner until start-up company Docker was formed. Docker took the approach of creating a standardised API, and promoted ease of use to the community to build libraries of containers which were portable. This is when container technology really became accessible, interesting, and started to grow.

Why they are cool…

The true power of any technology to become fully utilised in the market is for it to seamlessly replace older ways of doings things, without the major populace being aware. Containers have definitely fit this bill at Google, and many other companies around the world are doing the same.


I’ll be touching on what Containers can do and the orchestration for power in my next blog piece. Follow Richard Hands on Twitter to keep in touch.

Lean Tea – A new Agile Retrospective meeting format

Many of our readers and subscribers – especially those involved in Agile software development – will be familiar with Lean Coffee ™ meetings where participants get together, add potential agenda items to a Kanban board, and then discuss these items in turn, starting with the one with most votes. This is a great meeting format but if you have a ready-made batch of discussion points or important issues that need dealt with then why not cut to the chase? To that end I devised the ‘Lean Coffee with Cream’; but the introduction of cream – i.e. pre-prepared agenda items – breaks the trademarked Lean Coffee model, and I’m a typically British tea drinker, too, so I’ve decided to rename it the Lean Tea meeting.

From Lean workshops to Lean Tea meetings

I am currently serving as a Scrum Master for one of Sopra Steria’s Government sector clients; and my team and I strive for continous improvement. To that end we inspect and adapt our approach to software delivery, and we make good use of our fortnightly sprint retrospectives, mixing up the meeting format from time to time to keep things fresh, and following up on agreed actions. But a couple of months ago we decided to use the time set aside for our regular retrospective meetings and hold workshops on Lean Software Development instead.

In our first workshop we came together as a team to learn about The Toyota 3M model and the three enemies of Lean: Muda (waste), Muri (overburden) and Mura (unevenness). We then took some time in between workshops as individuals (prompted by email), to think about these three forms of waste (and the seven types of Muda in Lean Software Development) and how they apply to what we do. And in our next workshop we shared and discussed our examples of Muda, Muri and Mura, and I documented them all in our team’s online knowledge base.

There were some obvious quick wins which we dealt with – wastes that had not been mentioned in our regular retrospectives – but we were left with a long list of unprioritised wastes. So I turned to Lean Coffee Tea for our next retrospective, where instead of handing out post-it notes and pens to my teammates, I just handed out pens, because I had already added all our identified wastes to the meeting’s three-column Kanban board under “To Discuss”. We had our agenda. Now we just had to vote on those wastes that really mattered to us and were slowing us down.

Our first Lean Tea meeting was a great success: we identified and dealt with our two main wastes and our velocity has increased. I have since used the format again in a retrospective where I asked my team to vote on the five Scrum values they thought we were best at; then I reversed the voting order and we discussed those values with the fewest votes and how we could improve on them. The same could be done with the twelve agile principles or with outstanding action items (in priority order) from previous retrospectives.

So the next time you are looking for a new agile retrospective format why not try a Lean Tea? And consider having an actual cuppa while you’re doing it as tea is said to be good for the brain!