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Frictionless Enterprise - the Tierless Architecture of composable IT

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 12, 2022
Returning to our series on the journey to Frictionless Enterprise, Phil Wainewright maps the emergence of Tierless Architecture and what it means for how IT teams engage with business colleagues.

Tierless digital architecture - engagement functions resources - via

Although Frictionless Enterprise is about much more than technology, it is fundamentally shaped by technology. Therefore the Information Technology (IT) infrastructure an organization adopts is crucial to its ability to thrive in this new digitally connected era. This is no skin-deep change. Digital technology has evolved enormously since the advent of the Internet and the emergence of cloud computing, and is continuing to evolve rapidly. So too has the way that the IT function operates and engages with others across an organization. In this chapter, we map these changes and their implications for enterprise IT.

Digital connection changes everything - especially IT

Putting computing on the open network of the Internet — moving it from islands of disconnected isolation into a global fabric of near-ubiquitous connectivity — has forced it to adopt a more networked, atomic architecture, which we'll explore in detail below. Just as important, this has also enabled new ways of working for those who design and operate IT.

The early days of Internet connectivity made it possible for techologists to co-operate globally on software design, leading to the growth of open source software. Much of our most important infrastructure is now built on open source software, leveraging the pooled knowledge and experience of the community to continue to evolve and enhance it. Better connectivity allowed software engineers to work in agile DevOps teams, where the people who write the software work side-by-side — often virtually — with those who put it into operation. Meanwhile, the emergence of public hyperscale cloud computing prompted the development of more automated ways of deploying software. This in turn enabled the evolution of Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) to allow the rapid delivery of changes and new capabilities in small increments.

All of these changes in how IT works have been enabled by growing connectivity and have reinforced the consequent atomization of software to allow more rapid change. For example, the reorganization of software development into smaller DevOps teams was accompanied by the emergence of widely accepted standards for easily connecting software components using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). In an inverse validation of Conway's Law, changing the communication structure of IT made these new patterns of software design inevitable.

From N-tier to tierless

A flatter, more modular IT architecture is emerging in response to this more digitally connected environment. In the old world of disconnected systems, each system was built as a vertical stack with several discrete tiers. The end user interacted with an application interface in the upper tier. Behind this User Interface (UI) sat the next tier of application servers, where functions were processed. In turn, these application servers stored and fetched data in the final database tier. The entire stack was optimized for a specific application, and accessing the underlying data or executing functions for any other purpose required complex integration technology or cumbersome workarounds.

The new enterprise IT architecture decomposes all of these tiers and makes their components readily available via APIs. Instead of a 3-tier or N-tier stack of UI, application server(s) and database, there is a Tierless Architecture of engagement, functions and resources:

The new model is tierless — an open network ecosystem in which any function or resource becomes available through APIs to any qualified participant. Whether those functions and resources are data stores, microservices, system resources, serverless functions or SaaS applications and processes, the API layer makes them equally available as autonomous, multi-purpose, composable services. They connect up to produce results and then present the outcomes to the end user through an engagement layer. This combination of headless engagement with serverless functions and resources defines the new architecture.

Headless meets serverless

Here's what we mean by headless engagment and serverless functions and resources:

The latest developments are unfolding both at the presentation layer (the 'head') and at the underlying services layer (the 'servers'). Like many disruptive technologies in their early phases (think 'horseless carriage' and 'wireless receiver'), these two trends are named for what they replace rather than for what they bring ...

  • Today's emergent systems are headless because the presentation layer isn't fixed and therefore the user experience can take many different forms. A commerce system can be experienced on the web, on mobile, or through in-store gadgetry, while an enterprise application might be delivered as a web app, a mobile app, or within a messaging platform such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Rather than headless, they are many-headed, with unlimited choice as to how to present the user experience.

  • The underlying systems are serverless because the servers on which all of the computing runs are hidden away behind a layer of application programming interfaces (APIs). An infinite variety of interchangeable resources is available through this API services layer, ranging from custom microservices built by an organization's in-house IT team, to serverless functions delivered from cloud providers, to complete SaaS applications, and much more besides. Instead of being limited to what you are able to build and provision from your own servers, there is a global network of on-demand services at your disposal.

This new architecture cuts across the old functional silos that defined traditional enterprise applications, replacing complex Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) between monolithic application stacks with a more flexible ecosystem of autonomous components that connect through standardized APIs and contracts. The implications are far-reaching:

... [T]he traditional bundle of functionality that makes up an enterprise application has been broken down into separate components that are then recombined in new ways to provide a different, more streamlined outcome that wasn’t possible without the new technology. This is a phenomenon known to economists as unbundling and rebundling and it’s invariably a harbinger of disruptive innovation in a given field as new patterns of consumption become possible.

Jamstack, MACH and composable commerce

One of the first sectors to embrace this new composable architecture were digital experience (DX) developers — those who build websites and mobile apps that deliver dynamic content and e-commerce. In the mid-2010s, a new breed of vendors started offering 'headless' content and commerce platforms, mostly built on open-source technologies. Shortly afterwards, the term Jamstack was coined by Netlify founder Matt Biilmann to describe the architecture, where JAM stands for client-side JavaScript, server-side APIs and static front-end Markup. More recently, leading vendors and consultancies in this space formed the MACH Alliance as an industry advocacy group for a more expansive definition called MACH, which stands for Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless.

The recent inaugural MACH One conference demonstrated the growing enterprise adoption of this new architecture in composable commerce and DX, with speakers from retailers and consumer brands including Asda, Kraft Heinz, LEGO, Mars and River Island. All of them bear witness to the rapid implementation, smooth scalability and ongoing flexibility of the architecture, as well as its impact on IT's relationship with the business. As Rainer Knapp, Global Director of IT & Digital at Wolford puts it:

Using this freedom now to implement whatever comes in mind and makes sense for the business is something that will change the behavior I think a lot in the future ... I consider myself more being a business manager, honestly, with the advantage of having the lever of IT in his hand, than as a pure IT techie.

Conversational computing and connected teamwork

Another vector in the shift to Tierless Architecture and composable IT can be seen in the rise of messaging platforms as another way to interact with enterprise applications and resources. Known as conversational computing, this began with the emergence of voice assistants, chatbots and messaging apps, in which the user could ask an intelligent software agent to query data or perform actions without having to go into the underlying enterprise application. This makes those applications 'headless', with the messaging platform acting as the engagement layer and accessing their functions or data via APIs.

Digital teamwork platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams quickly recognized the benefits of connecting into external functions and resources to bring them into the user's flow of work right there in the messaging app. Microsoft has brought its Power Apps custom app builder into Teams and added powerful data capabilities with Dataverse for Teams. Slack also has an app builder and an ecosystem of partner app connections along with workflow automation and data connectivity. Its founding CEO Stewart Butterfield sees huge potential in connecting best-of-breed apps:

Slack — when it's really working for individual organizations on the inside — becomes this lightweight fabric for systems integration. And that's just as valuable across boundaries as inside.

We've already discussed in an earlier chapter the core role of digital teamwork in Frictionless Enterprise, and the Collaborative Canvas that underpins it. This teamwork platform is a critical element of the IT infrastructure because, once it has all the necessary connections into other systems, it forms the primary engagement layer for everyone's work. Just as we've seen with headless content and commerce, separating that engagement layer from underlying monolithic applications paves the way towards replacing them with a more composable set of functions and resources.

Business systems, lo/no/co-code and the role of IT

The impact of these new approaches on the IT function, as Wolford's Knapp says, is that it becomes a more engaged participant in achieving business goals, rather than simply a provider of technology at the behest of the business. In enterprises that operate large portfolios of SaaS applications, this has given rise to a new tribe of IT professionals who call themselves business systems specialists. Rather than operating in a discrete functional silo, they see themselves as embedded in the business and focused on its goals, and look to deliver tangible business value in short, agile projects. Their philosophy echoes what we've heard from MACH adopters.

Among teams like these, DevOps has been extended by concepts such as such author Marty Cagan's notion of product management, in which small, empowered product teams bring together software developers, product managers and designers to focus on specific goals. This is in line with the trend towards forming what Gartner calls fusion teams, which the analyst firm says "blend technology and business domain expertise to work on a digital product." Such teams are likely to proliferate with the spread of low-code and no-code development tools, where the involvement and support of pro coders from the IT function can help avoid common pitfalls. My preferred term for this combination of tech and business talent is 'co-code', as I recently explained:

There's no need to set up schisms between business people and IT when they can achieve far more by working in harmony ... Enterprise IT can put governance in place and manage the creation of the building-block components, while supporting business users as they make prototypes, test new functionality, or assemble their own automations.

In each of these examples, IT becomes engaged as a partner with business colleagues in achieving results. This pattern of delivery has much in common with the XaaS Effect that we discussed in an earlier chapter on customer engagement, but in this case applied to an internal function.

Data driven, with common standards

Releasing data from legacy application silos is becoming a priority as organizations seek to catch up with the on-demand, real-time cadence of Frictionless Enterprise. Every sphere of activity aspires to be data-driven, using connected digital technologies to achieve pervasive access to data that's as fresh as possible, and delivered in the context of everyday operational decision-making. In Tierless Architecture, data is set free from application silos and becomes just another resource that's accessible through the relevant API.

But despite the growth of platforms such as Snowflake and Confluent that help organizations marshall and analyze data at speed, there is still work to be done to turn data more readily into transferable information. Traditional applications have optimized their datasets for their own internal operations, which means that initiatives to build common ontologies for datasets such as a Customer Data Platform are still at a very early stage. In other fields, such as the work graphs built by digital teamwork vendors, no one has yet started to think about creating standards to allow the interchange of graph data. This is one area where the tooling for Tierless Architecture is still relatively immature.

Mainstream resistance and fake composability

As with any new technology paradigm, Tierless Architecture will face resistance, especially while the relevant skills are not mainstream and the toolsets and techniques are still evolving:

These new technology patterns require IT professionals and developers to abandon familiar, trusted ways of working. Their novel approaches are less well documented and therefore often appear less effective at first glance. Established vendors whose products cannot adapt to the new paradigm will stoke skepticism about its claimed advantages. There are many arguments and debates ahead.

The landscape becomes further confused when established vendors latch onto up-and-coming buzzwords such as 'headless' and apply them to existing products while retaining many of the characteristics of a tiered stack. This became so prevalent during the rise of cloud computing that the phenomenon became widely known as cloudwashing. To guard against attempted 'MACH-washing', the MACH Alliance has a rigorous certification program. Enterprises must be on their guard against fake composability.

A new generation of enterprise application vendors

While some vendors will drag their feet, many others are already adapting. There's a growing trend amongst established vendors to move towards composable platforms. Meanwhile, a new generation is coming through to take the place of the laggards. This new wave of vendors have grown up with a connection-first outlook:

They build on whatever technology comes to hand — open source and cloud infrastructure, connected services. For them, competitive advantage doesn't come from owning the stack, it comes from being free to select the best available resources for the moment ...

The conventional wisdom is to maximize what you own, but in today's hyperconnected cloud world, there's a new maxim — focus on whatever it is you can scale first, and faster, than anyone else. For everything else, use what's already out there.

Earlier this year, I asked Massimo Pezzini, former Gartner analyst and an expert on enterprise integration and automation, for his views on the composable future of enterprise IT. Here's what he told me:

The application portfolio of a company in five years from now is going to look much more different than it is today in terms of the architecture — more building blocks composed together and less and less of these gigantic application suites, which are super-rich in functionality, but also very inflexible, very hard to deal with ...

At some point, I believe that the application landscape of an organization will look like a broad set of elementary business components — accounting, payables, receivables, tax calculation, what have you — possibly coming from different vendors. The end-to-end process, the end-to-end application, will be built by these fusion teams, using orchestration tools. Teams will use these tools to aggregate and compose together these component building blocks at the backend, and rearranging them and shaping them in the way which fits with the company's business needs.

To be ready for this future, enterprises need to begin their journey to Tierless Architecture now, and IT teams must engage with business colleagues to ensure it delivers maximum value.

Further reading

This is the fourth chapter in a series of seven exploring the journey to Frictionless Enterprise:

You can find all of these articles as they're published at our Frictionless Enterprise archive index. To get notifications as new content appears, you can either follow the RSS feed for that page, keep in touch with us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or sign up for our fortnightly Frictionless Enterprise email newsletter, with the option of a free download of The XaaS Effect d·book.

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