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So long, silos, hello!

If the mythical Rip Van Winkle were to awake from his 20-year snooze not at the end of the American Colonial era, but rather at the end of the Internet Gold Rush -- and yes, that is a big if -- he actually wouldn't find all that much changed. Software marketers these days zigzag the country with presentation foils strangely similar to the ones they carried in the mid-1990s, when enterprise application integration was briefly the buzz.

The problem is that the departments in our corporations are not truly connected in a great web of productive endeavor. Connecting data and applying logic to an app just one PC away is not much easier than it was before the first Arpanet machine messaged another machine. When a software firm has to show a big end market to its venture capitalist backers, the problem can appear as a multimillion dollar opportunity.

In the days of office automation, when Xerox Parc was developing its great ideas that have now been commercialized, the phenomena might have been called "islands of automation."

Over the years, the terms "stovepipes" (also used to describe Digital Equipment's general approach to innovation) and "silos" were used to describe this essential problem of disconnectedness. If your eyes were to glaze over as software marketing execs described the problem today, they might surprise themselves and again recall the "silo" metaphor of long ago as they outlined the problem.

Inmon and Zachman are prominent, but they are just two of the many industry experts who have described the silo problem ... which still needs solving. What is odd is that it serves as something of a Rorschach test. The problem reveals much about the minds of the makers of software, but its solution remains hidden.

The problem of integrating silo systems is approached differently by makers of OO software, application integration software, BPM solutions, CRM software, content management software and so on. That so many Web services vendors are now singing its merits as an integration technology (rather than as the next killer Web app), adds fuel to the fire.

It does not help matters that Web services vendors have a hard time looking at what they do without seeing it as the last stage in civilization's evolution. When pressed, they admit their loosely coupled methods may not suit everybody, everywhere right away.

But silos are everywhere. Of late, a stream of content management software makers have wobbled out bloodied but unbowed by the Internet bubble burst after-blast. And silos are their targets because their approach is decidedly document-centric, whereas much of the activity in the distributed computing realm has focused on transactions.

If there is ever to be a breakthrough here, it might require the technology world to answer a simple question: "Is a bank check a transaction or a document?"

The question can lead to hot debates these days at beer blasts where people -- well, some people anyway -- argue the merits of the Semantic Web put forth by Tim Berners-Lee and others as the next step.

Silos seemed to go away, and have now reappeared -- leading a Skeptical Examiner to say: "So long, silos, hello!"

* * *
The difficulties of measuring software -- of describing what it is, for that matter -- have always made it a hard trade to ply. And since the days of the first electronic ledger, there has never been a shortage of obfuscators -- those who would tout their product beyond all reason, or denigrate competitors.

This can often be done without actually lying; with technology, it is usually a question of emphasis. The opposing technology evangelists simply apply "spin" to actual facts.

Microsoft's recent launch of Visual Studio .NET provided the occasion for a storm of spin. Few vendors in tools or architectures could avoid the temptation to "make news." Their target was usually the .NET architecture.

Another recent spin inflection point: BEA's efforts to present its vision of Web services at its yearly user conference.

This constant spin -- which often mangles the truth -- is an enemy to us all. The Skeptical Examiner asks for a cease fire.

What's your take on things? Is a bank check a transaction or a document? Has the storm of spin gone too far? Let me know.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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