I am a big fan of all things space and have been inspired by the recent transformation of the private space industry. There are many factors contributing to this unprecedented growth. But the one that sticks out in my mind is lowering the cost of rocket launches.
I like to think that the ability to get more products into space faster and cheaper is reminiscent of how we in the software industry build new software products and bring them to market at ever increasing speeds.
The comparison works well at a high level but is also equally applicable along some more subtle themes:
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said of rockets, “the lowest cost you can make anything for is the spot value of the material constituents.” So, the ability to reduce the cost of an individual component and/or make it reusable is key. In software, we leverage open source technologies to build and assemble our software components. This gives us the freedom to focus more on what makes a software product valuable: its business logic and custom user experience. Instead of spending money to re-engineer the data infrastructure to handle a web form submission, for example, it can be wisely invested to ensuring quality data and conversion metrics.
Third Party Tools
Whenever we build something, we always try to use the right tool for the right job. And sometimes, that tool already exists and we don’t need to invest precious time and money to re-create it. The space industry isn’t quite so fortunate as they’ve had to build more from scratch. But, SpaceX’s current Falcon Heavy rocket will leverage 27 of the existing Merlin engines from the Falcon 9 that has already seen regular, reliable use. (With this approach, current estimates have them at 40% of the price/cost of their competitors.) Likewise, typical web applications we build leverage email and require uptime monitoring. Lucky for you and us, those tools already exist in very robust and affordable offerings. We can use these off-the-shelf tools to expedite our software build process.
Hosting & Scale
You can build the world’s most efficient rocket, but you need a pad to launch it from. Software is no different; an app needs to be hosted somewhere to make it accessible to the public at a domain of your choosing.
For this, we almost exclusively host our applications on Heroku. All of the previous themes I’ve mentioned are at the core of the Heroku platform. The ability to use open source software and integrate with multiple external systems makes Heroku a reliable and go-to partner for us.But it’s not good enough to just have the application be hosted, it has to run efficiently and at scale. Here again Heroku steps up and shines. Their platform can scale on demand provisioning new servers to make sure you see no disruption to performance. Needless to say, we’re pretty big fans of their system! Ultimately, a reliable and scalable hosting platform is core to ensuring that costs can be kept to a minimum to make software releases more efficient and streamlined.
I could go on for much longer on this subject, but I’ll cut myself short. While the existing tooling and platforms certainly help reduce the cost of software launch, we’re always striving to be better. At LaunchPad Lab, we’ve created a team called OpEx (Operational Excellence) to further improve our reliability and reduce the cost of the custom software we develop and deploy. While just in the early stages, we’re excited for the improvements we’ve seen at getting software products to market faster. Our hope is to continue to lower the cost of launching new software products to deliver on-going value to users and our clients.
P.S. – If the team at SpaceX keeps up the good work, I might have to update this article’s numbers sooner rather than later.