Main content

The software defined enterprise is not a technology purchase

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 29, 2014
Phil goes off on a bit of a rant about tech for its own sake and why business leaders not IT buyers must take the lead in building the software defined enterprise

© Julien Eichinger -

Why does the technology industry constantly have to define the world in its own narrow terms? It inflicts far too many facepalm moments on spectators of its self-obsession.

For the past month or so, I've been receiving emails encouraging me to register for the Software Defined Enterprise Summit coming up in Palo Alto in October.

The first time this invite arrived in my inbox, I was enthralled. But my excitement soon turned to dismay when I reviewed the agenda. True to form, this tech industry conference defines an enterprise solely in terms of the technology in its datacenter. The entire focus of the event is on virtualization, containerization and software-defined storage and networking. The speakers are a mix of engineers, architects and open source contributors.

This is all very fine content if you like that sort if thing, but it is not at all what I have in mind when I think of the software-defined enterprise. To my mind, that phrase evokes the kind of business Marc Andreessen was thinking of when he wrote his 2011 WSJ article about software eating the world.

Defining the software defined enterprise

A software-defined enterprise is one that uses the power of software to keep redefining itself, rather than being locked into operating in a specific way. It instantiates its business processes in easily reconfigurable and extensible software that gives it the agility to rapidly morph its operations to adapt to newly emerging business opportunities and challenges.

This is not something you can build from the bottom up. No amount of virtualization and software-defined networking magic in your datacenter will bring your enterprise into the digital era if its business applications and processes were designed with a pre-digital mindset. Instead, the effort and investment will simply be wasted on needlessly adding a layer of efficient flexibility underneath a brittle and antiquated business infrastructure.

The rush to software-define the enterprise datacenter reminds me of a similar rush a decade ago to bring service-oriented architecture to enterprise IT. Millions were invested in SOA-enabling complex middleware stacks. But many of these large-scale projects were ultimately judged to have been failures. They did not deliver the expected benefits because no proper effort had been made to discover what the business actually needed before IT embarked on its SOA master plan.

So it will turn out with all those software-defined enterprise projects that start out at the datacenter. Unfortunately, many vendors are as culpable today as they were in the SOA days of encouraging this needless spending. It is not in their interests to promote a refactoring of IT that could eliminate entire layers of technology. Far better for them to be ambassadors for enhancing what IT already does than become envoys of creative disruption.

I don't blame the conference organizers. Their job is to promote a forum where vendors can meet interested buyers. They are simply putting together the words software-defined and enterprise to appeal to vendors and attract a certain kind of IT buyer. It is not their fault that it results in a misguided solecism.

It's about digital transformation

Business leaders that build what I would regard as software-defined enterprises worthy of the name are more likely to attend conferences about digital transformation. We will likely see a few of them at the Digital Transformation Summit, an event that diginomica is partnering with as part of IP Expo in London next month.

A truly configurable and extensible software-defined enterprise may have a software-defined datacenter somewhere within its IT landscape, but that is just one, entirely optional, part of the whole picture. Far more important will be various SaaS and PaaS components, along with a digitally connected infrastructure that makes it easy to swap new functionality and resources in and out.

Ironically, in view of my earlier comments, it will be built on a service-oriented architecture, but one which, rather than attempting to accommodate the complex services of those early enterprise SOA models, is comprised of easily interchangeable micro services. It will probably even involve some containerization. These technologies and skills do have a role to play in delivering the software-defined enterprise, but they are not an end in themselves. They are tools, a means to an end that must be defined first in terms of business outcomes.

In recent years, it has become commonplace for IT to control the technology spend in enterprises, to the extent that many people have become persuaded that this is the norm. In fact, it is only during periods of relative stasis that IT drives spending on tech.

During times of change — when emerging technologies open up unprecedented opportunities for business advantage — it is the business that takes charge of the spending decisions.

The software defined enterprise will become a reality (in many industries it already is). But it can only come into being with the wholehearted participation of business leaders who understand what the end goal is. Anyone who believes IT can build it without involving business decision makers is completely missing the point.

Image credit: © Julien Eichinger -

A grey colored placeholder image