Quentin Clark is a general manager at General Catalystleading business investments in next-generation products and solutions.
If you’ve been doing a quick search for “decentralization” over the past year, chances are most of the headlines are on Web3. Yes, the so-called new tools from blockchain and DeFi architecture are exciting developments that are likely to continue.
But if you loosen the layers of “decentralization,” you’ll find a complex, inevitable movement that has been brewing for decades. Since the early days of the internet, enterprise computing has gained momentum with technical innovation – we can connect businesses through the cloud, store data there and reach customers everywhere – and issues around security, privacy, ease of access and data sovereignty. Today, we are still knee-deep in this SaaS awakening that calls for a richer, serverless cloud infrastructure and data practices that transcend borders.
Coincidentally, the new wave of decentralized SaaS to better serve customers is on the rise as more distributed/remote work is done due to the pandemic. Employees can work anywhere and for anyone, inspiring a generation of tools for distributed teams. We are literally separated from a “centralized” office space and the tech community has innovated accordingly.
This is where enterprise computing intersects our day-to-day work: The modern employee experience requires a decentralized, serverless environment for get something done anywhere in the world, without compromising the way data is stored.
The Journey of Enterprise Computing
To understand where the company is going, we must first think about how it has evolved over the years. Believe it or not, companies once relied on good old-fashioned local, high-performance computing (look at the use of mainframes and minicomputers in the 1980s, for example). Employees, data and computers were usually all in the same building. Even the systems that affected customers were in the same building. For example: branches and stores with software that had on-premise IT cabinets.
As the workforce expanded and customer engagement expanded beyond the physical walls, many enterprises entered an era of client-server computing in the 1990s, led by companies like Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, etc., and the vast global network that is built to support the internet even before the dotcom bubble burst. Large companies often relied on regional data centers that were cross-border and connected by this new global infrastructure, but were often too scattered and slow (California customers had a lot of latency talking to computers in London).
The rise of large cloud data centers in the mid-2000s (AWS, Azure, Google) was a huge step for the distributed enterprise, but the truth is that most cloud computing is still highly centralized. These big data centers are just big regional hubs.
Since then, we’ve pushed boundaries and facilitated global trade. Going international used to be a big problem building a business, but not anymore. It’s common for today’s average B2B startup to have customers and employees all over the world from day one. This has worked wonders for flattening the world, but it gets tricky once data comes into play.
Data Sovereignty: How We Got Here
With all this globalization, enterprise computing has also had a push-pull with calls for customer and employee privacy (known as data sovereignty). Businesses are run by multinational employees and for multinational customers, but countries want more control over their data. Just look at post-Brexit storage issues and citizen-centric laws such as: GDPR and CCPA† This push-pull means that computing platforms of the future must be scalable, replaceable, elastic and provide greater flexibility to customers in all socio-political corners of the globe.
Companies naturally spread their assets across multiple cloud service providers (CSPs). They need diversity in regional coverage and greater control over their own business trajectory. Doing this avoids a single supplier lock-in.
I think the inevitable result is a multicloud, distributed world. Edge computing advances those options.
The need for platforms everywhere
Coincidentally, this decentralized shift goes hand in hand with our new work life in the pandemic era. Distributed workforce and customer base have grown from a “must-pay-at-at-to” to a “must-have”. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in business tools that serve the modern, distributed worker and further flatten the working world.
For starters, there are excellent new SaaS tools for the growing workforce itself. Thanks to these tools, we can continue to evolve towards offline-online collaboration between people who would otherwise be physically and temporarily out of sync.
Takeaways to repurpose for the modern worker
SaaS solutions accelerate the need to strike a careful balance between data sovereignty and CSP distribution. Enterprises need tools built to work anywhere, and are forced to double down on serverless, edge computing and place application resources (customer data, performance) everywhere.
I believe the future of the enterprise lies comfortably at the intersection of this next-gen cloud computing and our new reality of remote working. But to get there, we need to re-engineer our underlying tech stacks. This is more than just a shift to multicloud: it is a serverless environment that meets the expectations of both businesses and governments for software, security and sovereignty.
Leaders can prepare their companies for what lies ahead by constantly asking the right questions about how the programs and systems their teams build and invest in will grow globally. Does a new SaaS product help or hinder the new work being done anywhere, anytime? Will a solution building platform be able to respect the data sovereignty policies the company will have to implement? Will the way teams are organized and operate facilitate global work or create friction? If we start with the assumption that most activities in a company will take place anywhere in the world and at any time – are we designing the teams, processes and software to not only accommodate that reality, but really facilitate it?
In today’s Zoom-filled, increasingly serverless world, connecting people is more important than ever. Our future is bright – full of better work, better ways to work, and work experiences.