In-Depth

Shaping the Next-Gen SOA-Enabled UI

We're on the brink of the next major UI revolution, which will stoke the fire under SOA, says Jeff Tash. Plus, are you modeling all four pillars that define EA?

The pendulum has swung. Today, it's the individual business units, and not corporate IT organizations, that are responsible for nearly all IT spending decisions. These business managers are mostly interested in buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) packaged software solutions. Meanwhile, the segment of the software industry that sells ready-made ERP, CRM, and SCM application packages resembles the timeless visual image of a big fish swallowing a smaller fish, which itself is swallowing an even smaller fish. Of course, I'm referring to Oracle's recent acquisition of PeopleSoft, after PeopleSoft had just barely completed its own takeover of J.D. Edwards. That leaves two behemoths—SAP and Oracle—running a duopoly for the early 21st century.

If you examine the SAP and Oracle customer base, you'll find that many of these enterprises originally purchased COTS applications to solve their Y2K problems. Today, a great many of these customers have latched onto a new management fad originally published in the Harvard Business Review that says "IT doesn't matter." The hope is that COTS applications vendors (such as SAP and Oracle) will simply incorporate any new emerging technology into their product lines. The technological naysayer no longer believes there's any competitive advantage to be gained by serving as an early technology adopter—only pain.

Personally, if I'm an SAP or Oracle customer, my main concern is how much my enterprise will be contributing to those vendors' business models, both of which depend on maintaining enormous complexity to help sustain high margins.

The smart money recognizes that the pace and scope of technological innovation are already radically and rapidly altering the future competitive landscape. The Internet changed everything. Moore's Law promises that the number of transistors on a chip will continue to double every 18 months. Just as phenomenal, if not more so, are the improvements coming in wireless (think WiFi) or the decreases in data storage cost and size (think iPod). Enterprises that choose to ignore these kinds of technological breakthroughs are most likely going to struggle to survive.

The chief question is, can your enterprise afford to ride into tomorrow's technological landscape on the wings of SAP or Oracle? Is that your enterprise's strategy for coping with future technological change?

Major technological upheaval is about to happen once again. These seismic disturbances are almost always accompanied by major changes involving the user interface. Once upon a time, there were punch cards. Next came terminals, either screen-based (3270s) or character-based (VT100s). These were followed by the original IBM PCs, which ultimately morphed into present-day Windows. Then, finally, we get to today's ubiquitous Web browsers such as IE and Firefox. With each of these evolutionary steps, the world of computing fundamentally changed (so much so that each step was, in fact, revolutionary).

What's coming next? I believe we're on the brink of the next major user interface revolution. I think it will be the fuel that will stoke the fire under service-oriented architecture (SOA). Imagine universal Web-like connectivity, but with drag-and-drop or voice recognition instead of today's Web browser interface. Trust me. You're going to love this next-generation user interface. It's always exhilarating whenever paradigms shift. Check out Microsoft's Longhorn for a sneak peek at what a future user interface might look like. Also be sure to check out any offering that includes the term "convergence."

Will SAP or Oracle be the industry leaders that help shape the next-generation SOA-enabled user interface experience? Possibly, probably, perhaps, who knows? SAP and Oracle both made their fortunes by selling software that had, as its original engineering design center, relational database technology. Both of these software vendors have already had to reengineer their original products twice: once to support object-oriented technology, and then again to support the Web. What's one more paradigm shift?

What's Next for Corporate IT?
If the power to make decisions over IT spending has shifted to the edges of the enterprise, then what role should a corporate IT organization play? Many have concentrated simply on basic survival. Other, more enlightened corporate IT organizations have decided to focus instead on architecture.

Let's start with SOA. SOA is a type of application architecture. According to The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), application architecture is one of four pillars that define enterprise architecture (EA). The other three pillars include business architecture, data architecture, and technology architecture. EA is chiefly responsible for modeling, documenting, and communicating each of these four subsets.

Granted, not everyone's definition of EA conforms to TOGAF. For example, John Zachman, often considered the father of EA, describes his Zachman Framework as a way of documenting anything and everything about an enterprise and then placing that documentation into one of 36 separate cubbyholes, organized as six rows by six columns. Personally, I prefer TOGAF over the Zachman Framework.

A corporate IT organization needs to be able to model. Modeling is the essence of architecture. A business that possesses core competency in EA can achieve a competitive advantage.

IT must be able to model business architecture, which means documenting processes, roles, and responsibilities. IT must be able to model data architecture, which means documenting entities along with the assortment of relationships that exist among entities both at the data instance as well as the metadata level. IT must be able to model application architecture, which documents the modularity APIs that enable application partitioning and application integration. Finally, IT must be able to model technology architecture, which communicates IT standards while documenting technology portfolios.

It doesn't matter how much money you might be spending each year for COTS applications from SAP or Oracle. If you're a CEO, CFO, or CIO, you need to recognize that it is risky, if not reckless, for your enterprise to knowingly not model, document, and communicate your enterprise's business, data, application, and technology architectures. Enabling growth requires IT capability. Smart growth requires EA.

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