Archive for the ‘IT Architecture’ Category

Software robots – the IT viewpoint

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

I spent a day in Boston briefing some IT journalists last week on software robotics. Here are a couple of interesting takes on the subject by Robert Mitchell at ComputerWorld and Bob Brown at NetworkWorld.

Shop Direct “self-serve” process automation

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

More Blue Prism customer press coverage in British IT journal, Computer Weekly today. This time Shop Direct.

Two things leapt out at me from this article:

1. Shop Direct initially evaluated Blue Prism as an alternative to human beings and, specifically, to avoid offshoring.

2. An internal capability has been set up where business operations teams automate processes with minimal IT support bringing a new agility to managing the back office operation.

In short, Blue Prism will not appear on your integration or middleware architecture chart because it is a business application that is used by operational teams to automate their own processes: The “long tail” of process automation that is never going to make it onto the core IT program because of resourcing, economic or temporal reasons.

If I told you that Blue Prism was a software company with an “integrate anything” platform linked to a scalable and secure orchestration and execution engine, I’m sure you would glaze over. By listening to customers we are understanding how to express more simply what we do. Our website has changed quite a lot recently to help reflect this.

How did banks’ IT get in such a mess?

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The Economist has an interesting article on UK banks and the problems of historic systems development causing a lack of co-ordinated, fully integrated, customer focussed IT.  Of course, it would be great (although pie in the sky) to migrate to a greenfield IT architecture, but only brand new companies (like Metro Bank) truly have that option.

The lack of integration in banking has been caused by a combination of build and buy, the need to address regulatory changes, the launch of new products (yes, I remember the launch of credit cards, never mind ISAs).  But you might assume that, because banks have been around since IT was invented, and have been perpetual early adopters, that it is only old industries that suffer this problem.

It got me thinking about newer industries, take Telecoms and Media for example.  Why didn’t they have the opportunity to greenfield their IT?  My take is that it is the opposite of the banking scenario.  That is, the industry exploded so fast the ability to keep up with the pace of change meant that systems had to be cobbled together on the fly.  To grow a company from almost nothing to £80Bn in a few years must put enormous pressure on the CIO.

So despite the provocative headline of this post, the mess is entirely understandable and it is difficult to envisage any other result than the one we have.  We now must learn how to live with it, both in the short term and the long term using a combination of strategic and tactical initiatives targeted at the nirvana offered to new entrants.  However, if Metro Bank experiences the sudden growth it expects, I wonder how long before it suffers the same integration problems as everyone else?

Gartner: “No IT assets”

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

I’ve just downloaded the Gartner Top End User Predictions for 2010.  The very first one jumps on the Cloud/SaaS/Virtualisation bandwagon and gives it a whacking great crack of the whip.

“By 2012, 20% of businesses will own no IT assets”.  This is a stunner.  On closer inspection Gartner means hardware assets, not software, but even so, can we really believe this?

I will be happy to stand corrected.  I think that, supported by a very compelling business case, most enterprises are likely to head towards delegating responsibility for application development and support, and hardware procurement, configuration and management to external organisations.  But haven’t we seen all this hype before?  Consolidation of end user computing resources within the enterprise never really took off, did it?  Enterprises have so much invested in existing hardware and systems that I can’t see any, large ones at least, making so much headway in such a short space of time.

I expect the vast majority of larger enterprises, even the ones trying to aggressively adopt Cloud et al, to be living with legacy on-premise systems for at least another 10 years.  Am I a Luddite?

Sticking plaster mobile phone convergence

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I wish my mobile phone was all I needed to carry around.  OK, it is already a phone, a browser, an email device, alarm clock, twitter client, compass, satellite navigation, games console, railway timetable, newspapers and, bizarrely, a magnifying glass.  But why can’t it also be my car keys?  My TV remote?  My passport?  My wallet?

Well, Citi have contributed to the debate by offering a sticking plaster solution, both virtually and literally.  A sliver that adheres to the back of your mobile phone and enables contactless payments of up to $50 at Master Card PayPass readers.  This is a proper workaround but hopefully it is proving the need for something more strategic.

Hopefully within my lifetime, we will all have a unique identity held (securely) within our mobile phone.  Every time we buy a new device like a laptop or car, every time we are permitted access to a new office, club or country, every time we want to make a small or large payment, the infrastructure around us will adapt to us.

At the moment the supplier of the service or product grants us a single unique interface (for example a key).  The future will be citizen-centric.

Mysteries of SOA

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

I was alerted on Twitter by Corizon, the enterprise mashup company to The 9 Great Unsolved Mysteries of SOA by the ever trusty Joe McKendrick.

Here is my take.  If IT departments started listening more to what their businesses need to succeed in their own competitive environment, and less to vendor promoted architectural trends, then people would stop talking about whether SOA/Cloud/SaaS/Private Cloud/WTF is successful and move on to the much more important issue of whether businesses thrive irrespective of their choice of architecture.

Why IT and the business don’t trust each other

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Ask any business operations head what they think of their IT department and they will moan about IT being too slow, not connected enough to business strategy, too focussed on its own goals, too expensive, not addressing everyday business needs etc.

In truth, most experienced business heads are a bit more pragmatic than that.  They understand the IT side of the argument.  The importance of data integrity and security, system stability, centralised procurement of technology, coherent architectural strategy.

Whilst these are all very plausible and necessary requirements, the fact is that the speed of modern business requires operational responses measured in hours and days, rather than the months and years associated with traditional IT projects.

IT people are not dumb.  They recognised this ages ago.  Initiatives like SOA and BPMS are designed to provide business flexibility, speed of response, agility.  But these are major IT programmes in themselves and in business eyes can take too long to deliver even small benefits.  They can also be disproportionately costly, so the economic case only makes sense for major business requirements.  What about the 750 item (and growing) change list?

The business is coming under ever greater pressure to reduce headcount so the old option of simply recruiting a few more operational staff is no longer available.

The result is that well intentioned business ops people create their own solutions under the guise of “end user computing” but more likely referred to by EAs as “Rogue IT”.  Spreadsheets, local databases, emulator macros, even amateur VB programming.  All delivered without any control, governance or thought for future maintenance.  So, guess who gets called in to fix a “mission critical” system when the creators have moved on?

No wonder IT doesn’t trust the business to do IT.

The last thing IT needs is maverick business users creating their own solutions, so maybe they clamp down on end user computing, causing further frustration in the business.  A spiralling circle of distrust is normally masked by a resigned acceptance of “that’s just the way things are”.

Random quote I’ve heard from an operational head “IT have slowed the organisation down to a pace where we can’t react to business opportunities and it takes an age to get anything done”.

Random quote I’ve heard from an EA “Business Ops are continually doing their own skunkworks initiatives with no regard to data protection laws, system resilience, disaster recovery or central IT strategy and yet when they fall flat on their face, it becomes our problem to fix”.

As an external vendor interacting with business and IT, I can genuinely see both sides of this argument.  I also think there are ways of reconciling the two views.  More in a later post.

IT too clever? Not half!

Monday, May 18th, 2009

I’ve just read an interesting opinion piece in British Computing mag by Martin Butler.

He contends that the IT industry has “lost sight of its primary goal of reducing information management costs” and allowed IT estates to become way too complex.

I agree and I know countless operational people, the customers of IT, who are exasperated not only at the complexity of their IT, but perhaps more importantly the amount of time and money it now takes to make even the simplest of changes.

Martin’s anecdotal evidence of people resorting to spreadsheet management, or “passing around bits of paper” is depressing and as he points out, not the answer.

The reason I am interested in this subject is that Blue Prism is pioneering a new concept in computing aimed at simplifying corporate IT and the way it is interpreted and used by the business.

Freeing the business operation to fulfil its own integration and automation needs, and start hammering the growing IT change list is one thing.  But doing that with workarounds like spreadsheets or bits of paper or hiring temporary staff is ungoverned, insecure and not exactly scalable.  Blue Prism proposes an IT supported software platform, supported by a thorough methodology that business users can work within to make sense of the complexity, improve service, manage ongoing change, and above all reduce costs.

We call this an Operational Agility Platform, but the idea of operational agility is far from limited to Blue Prism.  As Martin suggests, there is evidence of a movement emerging “a revolt is under way”.  I prefer to think of it in the passive voice as a revolution as I don’t support the notion that operational people are revolting!

SOA bleeding heavily but not dead yet

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I saw an article in British Computer Weekly this morning by Jim Mortleman “SOA in the cloud”.

The basic premise of the article is that whilst the hype around SOA is overblown (no, really?!) the fundamental concept is good.  So the solution is…….change the name to cloud computing and press on.

I have been pretty right wing in my views on SOA in the past but I do genuinely believe that the concept is brilliant.  It is delivery that is flawed and there are two good reasons for this:

1.  Organisations take on too big a challenge in trying to deliver a service oriented architecture.  Grand vision = grand design = big bang = big cost = big risk = failed project.  There has to be a more incremental way of getting to SOA.

2.  SOA projects are almost always run by IT people.  No wonder they never meet business requirements.  Put business leaders in charge and watch the priorities change.

I spend a large portion of my life talking to senior customer service professionals.  The common story is that they are tired of IT projects that don’t deliver, and IT departments that cannot respond to change at the speed of business.

Change happens!  New product launches, regulatory change, product promotions, merger/acquisition, processing errors.  Shouldn’t SOA be enabling the business to provide appropriate responses to such change?

If the principles of SOA are to succeed, it is not going to happen by nomenclature, or adding more layers of complexity.  IT professionals need to distil SOA into simpler, more incremental, more business focussed chunks, and empower the business with platforms that enable them to react to everyday change without the usual lead times.

I believe that the ability to make a business operation truly agile will be one of the defining competitive advantages of the next decade.

In praise of swivel chairs

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Sean McGrath wrote an interesting piece at IT World suggesting that use of swivel chair interfacing is often the best integration strategy available to an organisation.

I am not sure how many swivel chairs it would take before Sean would see an automated approach as more suitable.  I’ve certainly seen banks of people doing little more than this type of business process, inconsistently and with plenty of errors – in itself a very expensive way of doing things.  I do, however, take his point and this is not a criticism of what is essentially an excellent post that raises a number of important points.

For me, the most important point Sean raises is that “if you cannot build a new end-to-end business process that covers both systems manually then you do not understand the requirements sufficiently to start coding it.”

These thoughts are also picked up by Reg Braithwaite in an equally excellent post Is software the documentation of business process mistakes?  Reg argues that if your code represents the “user manual” of the business process, then if the code is too complex, this may well be because the process is too complex.  In other words, get the manual process right before you automate it.

The only reason swivel chair integration exists is because of the inflexibility afforded to the business user by the existing systems.  Business users are left with manual as the only option available to them.  It is the quickest, cheapest and most reliable way of getting a business process done – which is a sad indictment on the state of affairs in IT.

My interest in this subject is that innovative solutions like Blue Prism are trying to address these issues, bringing agility to the business, but without damaging the integrity of the underlying systems, or creating the need for new code.

There will always be some place for swivel chair integration but let’s keep it to a minimum.  Once a process can be done manually, the only things that should prevent it from being automated are the need for human interaction, or the need for human intelligence (e.g. expert judgement).