Volkswagen undergoes culture shift to match its new open source approach

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Computerworld UK met with department head for IT at Volkswagen, Carsten Schade, at the Cloud Foundry Summit in Basel to get an update on the company's digital transformation progress

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A year on from the last time Computerworld UK met with Volkswagen at the Cloud Foundry Summit and the company is in the middle of its "experimental phase", on the path to embracing open source and wider digital transformation.

Department head for IT at Volkswagen Carsten Schade tells Computerworld UK that the company has got its head around many of the technical challenges for The Cloud Foundry and OpenStack at its various campuses. But for a global company that manufactures 10 million cars a year, the process of cultural change is still ongoing.

"Some years ago we set up a lab situation for running apps in Berlin," says Schade. "We set up Cloud Foundry there, we used it, and we now have a very stable platform and a lot of knowledge – they are a kind of a role model now for the company where we try to adapt things as much as it’s possible in a huge company like Volkswagen." 

"Now we are steady and beginning this cultural change, and we are hiring on a large scale in the next couple of months, hopefully. We have got big plans and Cloud Foundry is one of the main platforms." 

In September last year, head of group IT architecture and technology for Volkswagen Roy Sauer explained that the business was focusing on a move from a "traditional car manufacturer to a mobility service provider".

To begin with, that meant proof of concepts and a tendering process to figure out which technology vendors and platforms might be the best fit – VW opted for a multi-cloud approach and picked Pivotal over HPE to deliver its application development layer on top of an OpenStack private cloud. 

Today, Schade explains, Volkswagen is rolling out its cloud environments around the world. It just opened a data centre at a Skoda plant in the Czech Republic and there will be two more this year, with an additional seven to follow next year. He says most of the typical tasks required in setting up a totally private cloud environment are now automated and can be up and running in a couple of days. 

There are, of course, challenges surrounding complexities with the various cloud layers. "With Pivotal where we focused on one thing, our OpenStack environment is not an exclusive one, we also run Kubernetes or whatever you like," says Schade. "From a Volkswagen developer perspective you can use this OpenStack environment in different ways, you can set up your own VMs, you can use Cloud Foundry as well.

"That causes some problems with dependencies on the stack below Cloud Foundry. That’s not so easy to handle. There’s one recommendation from the Pivotal guys: we could have an exclusive OpenStack environment for Cloud Foundry then another one for different workloads. We’re discussing the best way around that right now."

At the same time, organisational change is underway throughout the company, including top-tier management. The whole IT group, Schade says, has adjusted to be more devops friendly – and IT is becoming more integrated with the rest of the business processes, a trend that will only continue.

"We have different roles, and new roles for most people, which is a huge change organisationally for us," he explains.

"We are just in the middle of this story so it’s not so easy – you have to find the right way to do things. We have thousands of people and for sure there are some who are eager and very keen to do new things, on the other hand you have legal restrictions and all kinds of stuff which is not so easy to handle and bring it in in a win-win situation, so it’s a challenge for the next couple of months I think."

Although financial savings are expected, Schade says Volkswagen is in the "experimental" phase and is currently measuring benefits in its speed of development, the IT side’s "main focus" right now. Open source is fundamental to this.

"[Open source] is a way forward for us because we think open source products bring the most innovation," he says. "One of the things why we are here and are gold members and have a booth is the idea of bringing all these skills together and having a platform which is not business critical to everyone but helps everyone to put business critical things on it, and that is something which is understood in the IT world really well." 

"I think we are in a good process to bring this mindshift we have in IT to other departments, which we do have to partner with, in getting open source to success."

"We are trying to go into the open source world and we want to bring our influence there too because we have a lot of developers and people with good ideas – they have the quality to bring and those things so let’s do them in the next steps."

Volkswagen is also about to set up a new project over the next couple of months to uproot its legacy infrastructure and applications.

All this underpins what the company will ultimately plan to deliver to the consumer. In a year’s time you can expect more apps and cooperation with smart cities to build intelligent parking systems and more. 

"On the other hand we are working on projects from the IoT side, for sure," Schade says. "We have millions of cars around the world and there will be more – we build 10 million cars every year and each one of them is a kind of device. So it’s necessary for us to use as much data as possible to bring more comfort to our customers, and even to build applications for people who are not owners of Volkswagen cars."

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