The Power of Platforms for Cloud and Security

For many years, IT industry vendors’ have relied and pitched the idea of being experts and specialists in some products and segments. This approach is known as “Best-of-Breed”. The landscape has been changing to a different approach lately, though. Vendors are now calling their portfolio “Best-of-Platform”, let’s have a look at why.

Like most changes in Enterprise IT, this one came from Consumer offers. You’ve known and experienced this in very deep ways in your personal life — and it’s time Enterprises start thinking about this too.

Enterprises walking into the unknown

In this article I’ll explore how Cloud providers and Cybersecurity vendors are setting up the stage for their portfolios for the next few years, maybe decades.

What you can get out of this article you ask?

As an Enterprise Network Admin you’ll learn what’s important to look at in vendor’s solutions.

As a Sales Engineer/Solutions Engineer you’ll learn term you should be familiar with to discuss in you next Designs.

As a Student, you’ll learn what technologies to specialize depending what you want to do later in your career.

As a non-technical reader you’ll learn why Consumer-brands push their family of products and why you should be careful when choosing your next techie products.

As a gamer, you’ll rejoice (or shiver) on a Super Mario / Steve Jobs crossover depiction.

./abstract

The term “Platform” is pervasive in the Tech industry nowadays. You’ll hear it to describe pretty much anything in technology.

Let’s make an exercise, think of the phone you use it’s probably either an Android-based, or iOS-based (iPhone’s OS). To support my claim, check out the 2021 mobile market share data most makers are using Android and Apple has a quarter of the market share:

When you stop to think about the mobile phone market, you’ll quickly realize that makers do everything they can to keep you on their device, use their own “flavour” or whatever-app-is-hype today including their own accessories. This is all because these makers are luring users to their own “Platforms”, which in this example would be a family of apps and devices (Samsung) or even more, apps, devices and paid services (Apple).

The more a user is into a makers’ platform, the more users will experience:

  • Simplicity (translated by some ease of use), and;
  • Integration.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s then have a look at its origins and what “Platform” means nowadays.

./level1

First and foremost, let’s define Platform. From a physical perspective it is a raised level surface on which people or things can stand.

A few decades ago video game makers brought a new meaning to “Platform”: a video-game genre where in order to reach the next level, the player has to go through a series of challenges involving jumping from one platform to another. My beloved Super Mario series is the most iconic example of this video-game type.

Maybe this inspired the tech industry to call a family of products with the same foundations that lead customers from one product to another a “Platform”? … Well I don’t really believe in this, thought it would be pretty cool if it were.

Looking at the IT industry, we can look and see that since 1980s the behemoth Microsoft has known the power of SOMETHING (i.e. an Operating System) that would allow it to dominate the software market with both Customers and its business Partners — that was “MS-DOS”. With it, Developers would only need to develop apps for that OS in order to reach a wide range of customers and customers would only need to worry about learning how to use that SOMETHING.

And so the idea of a pervasive “SOMETHING” that would allow a simpler experience for the user and developers to integrate their codes and different products into it, gained space in the Industry. That SOMETHING was way beyond specific products. It was about allowing Everyone to reach higher, no matter who they were while using it. I like to think of it this way: much like Platforms allows us to reach higher, so does that SOMETHING, and so when I think of a Platform in the technology world, I think of a family of Products/Services that are about:

  • Simplicity, and;
  • Some sort of Integration to other products.

I believe what helped to solidify this business strategy was the massive success of Apple.

After the release of Apple 1 and the awesome Apple 2 it took Apple a good few years to release another groundbreaking set of products. They had been trying to build a family of products for years but with no success. But after the return of Steve Jobs (with the acquisition of NExT), it could finally propose and back a Platform approach, with one company providing Hardware, OS, software, and services. Its idea was straightforward, and required a lot of moving parts, different Markets and decades of development. Basically after the release of the Mac OS X, they’ve been building all their products and services around it (iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Music, Apple watch…) and it has proved to be a very successful strategy. Mac OS X relied heavily on a technology called “Object-oriented Programming” something that hadn’t found it’s way into OS or major programs at the time. It turned out to be a game changer for Apple and all its future products

Leap frogging to a Platform Approach

This business strategy was so successful that Apple has entered new markets, is prevalent and everywhere and their products work in tandem, so much so that they can wrap its users in its own ecosystem from multiple angles — all the while, customers love their products for all the benefits we listed before:

  • Simplicity and
  • Integration

That’s one of the biggest examples of success in Business with the Platform Approach. Some of the other benefits and reasons why companies pursue this approach nowadays are to:

  • save money with development hours;
  • quicker support and troubleshooting;
  • save money on staff training;
  • optimize their processes by having a continuous and predictive workflow with products within the platform;
  • make users fell no resistance when they operate one of their products.

When we list of these benefits and success cases, it’s easy to understand why many vendors have decided to also develop their own Platforms — Including now many Cybersecurity and Cloud vendors.

Enterprises also understand and realize these benefits so much so that a research from Enterprise Source Group (ESG) from 2019 proves this:

ESG research from: cybersecurity-technology-platforms-en (broadcom.com)

All of this helps understand why all the major Technology vendors of these industries including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Cisco, Fortinet, Palo Alto, Trend Micro, and etc, have started developing and releasing more than standalone products — they’re all investing heavily on their own Platforms (Cloud/Networking/Security/Conferencing) instead of only “Best-of-breed” products.

./technology

Under the Hood

One of the fundamentals of the Platform approach is having the technology that will “power” it. In my previous example, Mac OS X was the platform, it relied heavily on a technology called “Object-oriented Programming” something that hadn’t found it’s way into OS or major programs at the time (early 90s). It turned out to be a game changer for Apple and all its future products. I’m not a software developer so I cannot get into details why that is, however, I do know that this new technology allowed the new OS to be scalable (being able to somehow power iPhones to iPads and Macs) and highly customizable at an easier level than previous programming paradigms.

Let’s now look at current technologies that these Cloud and Cybersecurity vendors are building their portfolio upon.

  • Web Applications — First off, the web and applications that are available through it. Every single vendor in this list is offering components as Cloud-hosted services. With Web applications it’s natural to think of full stack programming languages and frameworks. I would say pretty much any technology in this is powering these vendors’ Platforms to some capacity.
  • Programming Interfaces — Secondly, these vendors are using are APIs to connect a lot of their products. Look at Microsoft with their “Graph API” that can connect their Azure AD to Teams and to their cybersecurity stack. The actual technologies here are Webhooks, listeners and some scripting languages.
  • Scripting Languages — This is an important tool to the technologies mentioned above. Scripting allows for the creation of workflows and an automated way of sharing data in these vendors’ platforms and also amongst other, 3rd party platforms.
  • Automation— Or the simple fact that applications can be spun up in seconds versus hours. Technologies supporting this are: Ansible, Terraform, Kubernetes (containers).

Vendors have adopted these technologies on their portfolio every year. In my opinion, most notably, Cisco and Microsoft have completely shifted their ways in very meaningful and deep ways over the past few years to include them.

./market

Microsoft’s business model since 2014 when Satya Nadela was announced the new CEO, has been defined as a “Platform Business model”. And since then, they’ve redefined their business in every market they’re operate in. Just look at their Public Cloud offering with Azure. They’re a top player in the market alongside AWS. In the security industry they’re also among the top, gaining a lot of momentum in recent years since they started relying more heavily on their cloud services.

Microsoft’s Platform approach varies on the technology stack, of course. Their Graph API, however is core to most of their cloud-based platforms — being heavily used on Cloud AD and

In the security space, Trend Micro, a leader in Enterprise Endpoint and Cloud security has been increasingly moving towards a platform approach with the introduction of “Cloud one” and “Vision One” services platforms — basically integrating multiple solutions behind “all-in-one” dashboards, with Automation, Flexibility and Cloud-native solutions available for their customers.

I think it’s particularly important to notice that Trend Micro’s endpoint agent can be automated using Ansible for many years now, since at least 2015 — a clear sign of the platform approach being adopted and supported early by the vendor.

Fortinet has a similar thinking in terms of integrating and making APIs available on their products, but a mature platform with all the potential that they can deliver is still a couple years away. They’re actively working on cloud-native management solutions.

Cisco has made a similar move over the last decade. I’ve rode that wave working with their products for most of the past decade, having seen webex go from a siloed product to the open, API-based platform that it has become. Over their security portfolio, they’ve bought several cloud-native security vendors and have integrated most of them with their XDR, SecureX — all while making the APIs open and available for customers to use and automate as they please too. Their DC portfolio has always been the forefront productset in this topic though, and it continues to challenge the rule and break new ground with Intersight and its ACI implementation.

The biggest change in Cisco’s portfolio, however, was in their routing/switching platforms moving from the “status-quo” IOS software to IOS-XE that supports modern APIs.

If I had to List Cisco’s common Platforms based on “technology Architectures” this is how I would put it:

Networking — DNA Center, Meraki, IOS (in the past), IOS-XE

Security — SecureX, ISE, Secure Endpoints (AMP4E), Umbrella, Cloudlock, FTD API

DataCenter — Intersight, ACI, App Dynamics

Collaboration — Webex, Room OS

./conclusion

Cloud and Security solutions have to adhere to such a dynamic environment that they must be open, “integratable” (for lack of a better word) and even support third party services in order to be relevant and competitive in the Enterprise Market.

Make sure to rely on vendors and solutions that have this approach if you want your current investments to last longer. This decision factor is true for CISOs/CTOs and Managers choosing technologies for their environments, as well as for Individual contributors looking for the best tech to dive into and get hired in the next months/years.

Now it’s up to you to adapt and follow down this path too.

Go!

./references

  1. Intro — Balancing the Pros and Cons of Best of Breed Software (cmswire.com)
  2. Abstract — mobile market share: Mobile Vendor Market Share Worldwide | StatCounter Global Stats
  3. level1 — oxford dictionaries definitions
  4. level1- Microsoft dominance: IBM Signs A Deal With The Devil — This Day in Tech History
  5. level1 — Apple acquires Next, Jobs — CNET
  6. level1 — The Advantages of PaaS: Leveraging a Platform Service — Liquid State (liquid-state.com)
  7. level1 — Enteprise companies want platforms: cybersecurity-technology-platforms-en (broadcom.com)
  8. Technology — Use the Microsoft Graph API — Microsoft Graph | Microsoft Docs
  9. Technology — Scripting language — Wikipedia
  10. Technology —
  11. Market — Microsoft’s business model: How Microsoft makes money (fifthperson.com)
  12. Market — Microsoft is a platform company, 2014 Microsoft is a ‘productivity and platform company’ now, Nadella says | VentureBeat
  13. Market — Trend Micro platform: Cloud One Services | Trend Micro
  14. Market — Trend Micro Vision one: Trend Micro Vision One™ with Managed XDR | Trend Micro
  15. Market — Trend Micro and Ansible: Deep dive into Trend Micro Deep Security integration modules (ansible.com)
  16. Market- Cisco platforms: Cisco SecureX — A Simplified Security Experience — Cisco
  17. Market- Cisco platforms: Video Conferencing, Online Meetings, Screen Share | Cisco Webex
  18. Market- Cisco platforms: Cisco Intersight Infrastructure Service for Cloud — Cisco

Cloud Security engineer — Andre has been an IT professional for a decade with a range of experience from Support, to Sales, to Consulting.

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