Application strategy in a cloud world

Look at where technology is going, or where it’s dragging us, and you see two unstoppable forces that, if mismanaged, will send problems rippling through corporate IT infrastructure for years: cloud and mobile computing.

Many CIOs are investigating cloud services for possible use in application development and testing. Meanwhile, the mobile pressure builds. Employees check work e-mail on personal devices they bring to the office and most of your customers carry cell phones.

In other words, either you’re consciously building cloud and mobile systems or you’re reacting to forces of the world pushing you down that path. It’s always better to be conscious. In other words, you need to make careful enterprise architecture decisions that encompass technology and services that, whether or not they live inside the corporate walls, will incorporate themselves into your business strategy.

Gartner predicts that within two years, up to 20% of companies will own no IT assets at all, their CIOs having hired outsourcers, cloud providers and software-as-a-service hosts to do their computing work for them. Many other CIOs will be responsible for a mishmash of internal and external IT resources that employees and customers use with a plethora of devices. While iPhone users can’t yet pinch and flick their way through transactions on a corporate-grade ERP suite running in the cloud, give Apple and SAP time, says Michael Capone, CIO of Automatic Data Processing, the payroll services firm. That’s where we’re headed.

No longer can we pick a hardware platform and expect to live with it exclusively, or even for very long. IT leaders must conceive a technology architecture flexible enough to deliver enterprise applications-sometimes even the same single application-in several ways, says Filippo Passerini, CIO of Procter and Gamble. That includes running apps in others’ data centres and in the palms of people’s hands.

CIOs, therefore, must work closely with enterprise architects to lay down a framework for delivering applications on multiple platforms. Some view enterprise architecture as a theoretical exercise or a noble endeavor to try when there’s time. But today’s technology shifts make good enterprise architecture a practical necessity. No one can be certain how mobile and cloud technology will develop or which vendors will dominate.

Get ahead of the angst – that’s the key. Start early on from an architecture standpoint as opposed to retrofitting something after it’s been built.

Cell phone vendors are on track to sell 1.4 billion devices this year, after selling more than 2.4 billion in 2008 and 2009, according to Gartner. Within four years, predicts Morgan Stanley investment guru Mary Meeker, more people will get on the Internet via mobile devices than PCs. And that’s not just consumers. At P and G, for instance, mobile computing is no longer just for road warriors: it’s a platform for the enterprise. More than 12,000 P and G employees use Apple iPads and various smartphones for everyday work at the office, prompting the company to work with Xerox to develop technology to let these workers print documents from the devices.

And a recent survey from Pew Research of 895 Internet experts and technology industry executives revealed key views on how computing will evolve. The big prediction: by 2020, most people will access software and information online – meaning somewhere on the Internet, rather than using tools and data stored on their PCs or in a company data centre.

Today, CIOs see a clear line between on-premise and cloud computing, between the safety and confidence of controlling one’s systems and the anxiety that comes with working in the cloud. But in ten years, the Pew report concludes, there will be no line. People will generally not be able to distinguish the difference between when they are working within their local device and when they are accessing the cloud. Security and accountability issues that vex CIOs today will be resolved.

Between now and then, a disciplined enterprise architecture can help CIOs manage the ambiguity that cloud and mobile bring, says Leon Kappelman, the founding chair of the Society for Information Management’s enterprise architecture group. Creating an enterprise architecture means not only laying out which technologies a company will use but also the relationships and intersections between the business processes they support. But most companies do only half the job, Kappelman says. Often, they stop at the technology map because it is simpler to figure out than how business processes relate to each other.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) gets at some of these challenges, Kappelman says, but doesn’t provide a complete solution-at least not the way most people practice it. SOA addresses the design and implementation phase of projects, with the goal of later reusing individual components. Many SOA adopters map a discrete business task, such as recording customer contact information, to specific technology, such as a Web form. But SOA usually isn’t used to understand and record an entire process, such as end-to-end customer service.

Especially when urgent projects arise, pausing to consider the larger context can feel as if it slows progress. But in this time of technology flux, as cloud and mobile computing flower into enterprise-ready technologies, IT leaders must understand how business processes relate. When you ask about mobile, everybody wants everything, but the real challenge is determining what business need you are solving, so take time to figure this out.

Otherwise, Kappelman adds, you will design systems wedded to particular technologies that contribute little to making the company as a whole more efficient. “Even if we perfect the technology architecture and engineer our systems into reusable, interoperable, and therefore flexible components, we cannot stay aligned unless we can also maintain our knowledge of the business and its processes, objectives, rules and timing.”

When you build your own software, you have to pay for the hardware, development, deployment and support. You’re risking capital and hoping you get business value. In fact, if you’ve written a cheque, you’re going to ride that depreciation for a long time, whether you’re getting business value or not. But with SaaS and cloud, the risk to precious investment can be lower. Provided your agreements with vendors are structured properly, you can walk away if you’re not getting business value.

A well-developed enterprise architecture reflects the integration, or lack thereof, between IT and business goals, says Betsy Burton, an analyst at Gartner. The architects can become a conduit between the technology group and business managers, she says. In so doing, a good architecture team will transcend a technology-focused mission, she says.

“You want the team to evolve the business to the future, which is more than setting down vendor standards,” she says. “Organisations that do not drive all architectural decisions off of a clear understanding of business context and the future state of the company have an extremely difficult time demonstrating and delivering business value.”

Smooth delivery of applications in new modes such as cloud and mobile serves as a proof point of the value of good enterprise architecture. Enterprise architectures define technology and what the business does and how it does it, but they also define our thought process about technology.

Burton agrees. Today, 60-70% of enterprise architecture chiefs report to the CIO. But she predicts that as architecture groups evolve to emphasise business-process expertise, they will become accountable to the chief operating officer.

Kappelman, the IT professor, expects a greater evolution. The big thoughts about the creative use of technology in a business context won’t stay confined to IT or enterprise architecture, he says. He likens the change to the way ” scientific management” emerged in the late 1800s. Then, efficiency experts were charged with making shop floors run better. Soon, precepts developed by those scientists proliferated, influencing the work habits of all employees, Kappelman says. Everyone strove for efficiency. Likewise, he predicts, “what we now call enterprise architecture will become part of how everyone functions.”

Meanwhile, CIOs can leverage a strong enterprise architecture group to keep ahead of business demands by identifying application delivery needs. Embedding architects in each line of business, such as asset management, to absorb the nuances of shifting strategies and goals means these architects bring what they know of technology and what they learn about the business back to the development team to ensure applications are built and delivered in ways that best serve an organisation as a whole.

In other words, the enterprise architecture team has to be very rooted in business outcomes.

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