Netflix’s ‘Laissez-Faire’ IT Embraces Cloud And Open Source

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Netflix lets employees use what ever they want, open sources its internal applications and wants to be cloud-only by the end of the year

Netflix’s business model is one that has relied on disruption. First, it shook up the video rental market, and is now challenging traditional broadcasters with its catalogue of on-demand content available on multiple devices.

Given this disruptive nature, it’s unsurprising that the company takes a slightly different approach to IT, with a laissez-faire attitude towards applications and a pledge to move all of its back-end operations to the cloud by the end of the year.

Simple applications, 4K content and an algorithm that recommends new TV shows and films based on user behaviour are the most obvious technical innovations at the company, but behind these developments are a team of developers and management stuff that have their own needs.

Whatever you want

Justin Slaten Netflix“It’s a back office role for quite an amazing talent group,” Justin Slaten, manager of Netflix’s enterprise technology group told TechWeekEurope, explaining that the company uses a combination of commercially available SaaS applications and internally-developed software, with employees able to use virtually any tool of their choice.

“We don’t block people from using what they want to use,” he added, claiming that the firm uses “too many” SaaS applications to name them off the top of his head.

“A lot of times we might suggest other things but we can’t assume to know how someone is going to do their job the best way because we don’t know how to do their job. As IT we’re not blockers. We help support anyone with what it is they are using.”

Box office

Netflix is a Box customer and the two companies have a close relationship. Slaten himself consulted Box for its Box for Industry product for the media and entertainment sector and Box has been rolled out to Netflix’s 1,700 employees allowing them to collaborate on projects internally and with third parties. For example, the firm’s marketing team works with the film studios for banner ads and movie trailers.

“Box was at Netflix before I joined so use was pretty widespread,” he said. “So I was wondering how we can make more use of something that’s already very useful to us.

“I would say the most interesting thing about Box is its viral adoption and varied use cases. The thing you notice first off is that you have no idea how people are using it because they just go off on their own and use it.

“That’s great, but there’s a lot more to Box that as a team we can offer as far as the platform goes in terms of building automation and the workflow and that’s what we’ve focused on.”

Simple external collaboration is one of those areas, but Slaten said the more interesting projects involved the automation of workflows that have existed for some time, such as an outdated FTP process or an old accounting method: “Those are the ones that aren’t as obviously self-service.”

Internal development

Netflix HQIt’s not difficult to find SaaS vendors who are so desperate to have Netflix as a customer that they change their product to fit the company’s needs, something Slaten will discourage the vendor from doing, especially if they are a young firm.

“When we evaluate a SaaS vendor, a lot of people want to have the Netflix logo and say we’re a customer, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get us. That’s not always the right approach for a vendor because it doesn’t necessarily mean longevity for them.

“Let’s say it’s a startup and they’re building something for Netflix, it’s probably not going to work for everybody. I try to push them to look at their future and their customer base.”

Instead of using a product that only meets part of their needs and asking a supplier to adapt, Netflix will develop something internally and open source it if the company believes it will help it further down the line.

“As a company we’re very adamant about open sourcing things that aren’t ‘secret sauce’,” he said. “Things that will help other people and in turn help the community and us. That’s a very good reason to open source and way better than us keeping it to ourselves.”

How easy is it to move to 100% cloud?

Netflix’s disruptive ethos and comparatively young age (it was founded in 1997) mean it can make the transition to cloud easier than others, but Slaten denies it’s been straight forward and won’t sign off any unsettling migrations.

“I’m not going to say it’s easy because there are things that weren’t built for the cloud that you have to figure out,” he says. “Do we change our business process or affect people in a certain way just for the sake a 100 percent cloud approach?”

However he recommends that all companies routinely check their systems to see what systems “are low-hanging fruits” ripe for innovation and other legacy systems that are “skeletons in the closet.”

“When you start digging into it, there are things that are ripe for innovation and it’s time to help evolve those things, while others are legacy and don’t need to stick around.

“We’re very tolerant company when it comes to technology and trying things and working with partners. We’re definitely very forward when it comes to that.”

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