Agility vs. Flexibility


When you’re looking at moving to a new technology, whether it be SD-WAN or cloud, you’re going to be told all about the capabilities it has and all the shiny new stuff it can do for you. I would almost guarantee that you’re going to hear the words “agile” and “flexible” at some point during the conversation. Now, obviously those two things are different based on the fact there are two different words to describe what they do. But I’ve also heard people use them interchangeably. What does it mean to be agile? And is it better to be flexible too?

Agile Profile

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. It’s a quality displayed by athletes and fighters the world over. It’s a combination of reflexes and skill. Agility gives you the ability to react quickly to situations.

What does that mean in a technology sense? Mostly, agile solutions or methodologies are able to react to changing conditions or requirements quickly and adapt to meet those needs. Imagine a platform that can react to the changing needs of users. Or add new functions on the fly on demand. That’s the kind of agility that comes from software functionality or programmability. It’s a development team that can react without technical debt weighing them down.

But agile doesn’t always mean extensible. Just because you can react quickly doesn’t mean that you have the ability to extend the platform in ways that it can’t manage. Agile solutions can be rebuilt quickly but they have limitations. Usually, with technology, those limitations revolve around hardware. Agile solutions have to be built that way from the start. But it often means sacrifices must be made. Perhaps it didn’t ship with an interface that allows hardware to be added. Maybe the form factor is a limitation. A Raspberry Pi is a very agile platform within reason. But you’re not ever going to be able to build them into a GPU farm. Because they are locked into a specific kind of agility.

Flex Specs

Flexibility is the ability to react to new environments or changing requirements. That definition sounds an awful lot like the one above for agility, doesn’t it? They both sort of mean that you can change what you’re capable of. Flexibility is a characteristic that is usually used to describe gymnasts or dancers. Would you confuse a ballerina for a boxing champion? Likely not. Even though they can react to different situations they’re both different in many ways.

First and foremost, flexibility doesn’t require speed. Agility implicitly requires quick reactions. Flexibility can take time to adapt to things. Maybe that means adding new hardware to a server to expand GPU capabilities. Maybe it means adding modules to a software program to add new functions, like financial tracking added to a roster program. It may not be available right away but it is something that can be built in.

Flexibility on a hardware platform can take many directions. I always think of SD-WAN appliances as the ultimately form of flexibility. The more advanced units can run 4G/LTE modems in USB form. Or they can even run in the cloud without any specific hardware. The software platform isn’t tied to one specific hardware configuration or even form factor. It’s truly flexible because it doesn’t have any prerequisites or requirements.

But, as mentioned, flexibility isn’t always equated to agility. You can have a very flexible platform that requires a lot of time to build out. A classic example would be a desktop computer. It’s a very flexible platform but it takes time to install expansion cards and optional hardware. It’s also something that has to be configured and built to be flexible from the start. ATX motherboards have a certain kind of flexibility. Micro-ATX boards trade expansion flexibility for size flexibility. I can’t add two extra graphics cards to them but I can put the board into a case the size of a toaster.


Tom’s Take

What’s better? Agile or flexible? It depends on what kind of solution you need. Do you want to build on something? Or be able to upgrade it quickly? Is speed more important that creativity? There are so many dimensions that need to be considered. Most modern platforms have a few elements of each in their design. SD-WAN is both agile and flexible. Some solutions are more one than the other and that’s fine. Just remember that you need to ask for something very specific to meet criteria because if you’re looking for one you may end up with the other and not realize it until it’s too late.

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