With technology's tendrils stretching into every aspect of business, do enterprises risk getting tied into knots?
Enterprises are taking advantage of a new wave of applications that harness digital innovations such as cloud computing, mobile, social, the Internet of Things and big data analytics. But early adopters are already struggling with integration challenges as they seek to join up data from disparate sources or connect processes across mobile, cloud and on-premise applications.
Pundits and analysts are busy dreaming up names for this flux of converging technologies that will reshape our world, but are less helpful when it comes to suggesting how to tame this new landscape.
Gartner calls it the Nexus of Forces, IDC calls it the 3rd Platform. Others have used the term SMAC — for social, mobile, analytics and cloud. Here at diginomica we talk about enabling frictionless enterprise (originally defined here).
The Open Group, a long-established consortium of enterprise IT customers, vendors and researchers, also has a name for this convergence: Platform 3.0. But its focus goes beyond classification. It has set up a working group, the Platform 3.0 Forum, to work on bringing standardization and interoperability to this complex emerging landscape.
While it's always difficult to get the timing of standards right when dealing with new technologies — bring them in too early and they won't map to the reality of what's needed — the risk is that if the work is left too late, enterprises will end up locked into proprietary stacks at the mercy of a handful of dominant vendors.
"We're seeing a need for some kind of standard platform," the group's director for interoperability, Chris Harding, told me this week. "Having said which, it's not going to look like any kind of standard operating system platform."
The standardization is needed in areas such as data model definitions, service-oriented interfaces and application-level design principles that aid portability. This will make it easier for enterprises to share skills and resources, choose the right tool for the job in hand, and connect different services together.
"A standard platform enables economy of scale because everyone is using the same thing, you have the ability to mix and match, and ease of integration," explained Harding.
The Open Group is probably best known as the creator of the TOGAF enterprise architecture specification. This background explains its interest in taking up the mantle of defining a set of overarching design standards for today's emerging digital landscape.
TOGAF's emphasis on business-IT alignment also provides some reassurance that this new initiative will focus on enabling business outcomes rather than remaining an abstract technology discussion (though some worries on that score remain, as we'll discuss in a moment).
Here's how Open Group CTO Dave Lounsbury introduced the Platform 3.0 Forum, launching it in a blog post in March:
"[W]hile organizations will be looking to make use of Platform 3.0 to create innovative new products and services, this will not be an easy transition for many. Significantly, there will be architectural issues and structural considerations to consider when using and combining these convergent technologies which will need to be overcome. Accomplishing this will in turn require cooperation among suppliers and users of these products and services."
The Forum aims to give enterprises a helping hand, he went on, by "identifying a set of new platform capabilities, and architecting and standardizing an IT platform by which enterprises can reap the business benefits of Platform 3.0. It is our intention that these capabilities will enable enterprises to:
- Process data "in the Cloud"
- Integrate mobile devices with enterprise computing
- Incorporate new sources of data, including social media and sensors in the Internet of Things
- Manage and share data that has high volume, velocity, variety and distribution
- Turn the data into usable information through correlation, fusion, analysis and visualization
"The forum will bring together a community of industry experts and thought leaders whose purpose it will be to meet these goals, initiate and manage programs to support them, and promote the results."
In a follow-up post later the same month, Harding summed up the potential problems the initiative aims to counteract:
"Although there is technology that enables businesses to use social, Cloud, and mobile computing, and to analyze and process massive amounts of data of different kinds, it is not necessarily easy to use. A plethora of products is emerging, with different interfaces, and with no ability to work with each other. This is fine for geeks who love to play with new toys, but not so good for someone who wants to realize a new business idea and make money.
"The new generation of business applications cannot be built on a mish-mash of unstable products, each requiring a different kind of specialist expertise. It needs a solid platform, generally understood by enterprise architects and software engineers, who can translate the business ideas into technical solutions."
These are noble aspirations, but the road ahead will not be easy.
The Forum is currently analyzing enterprise use of cloud, social, mobile and big data, and the business benefits they gain from them. This is a classic TOGAF approach of building a business scenario, which it is hoped will be completed over summer.
All being well, the results will be presented at the Open Group's next conference in London, in October this year. Having completed this analysis, the Forum will go on to produce a first snapshot of the new IT platform, and its key design principles and definitions.
There are three dangers to negotiate: prescription, focus and timing.
Prescription: One of the dangers is that the project will end up with a set of definitions that are too rigid for the dynamic nature of this new platform, which is inherently more iterative than the project-based waterfall model of earlier generations of IT.
"We need to avoid the waterfall approach to this too," Harding agreed when I put this to him. "It's going to be a case of do the snapshot, do another iteration, produce a first draft, be ready to iterate again."
Focus. A related danger is that the discussion will become embedded in technology considerations to the exclusion or detriment of business needs. Stuart Boardman, a senior business consultant with KPN and founding member of the Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group addressed this concern in an April blog post that called up the spirit of author Douglas Adams, The Interconnectedness of All Things:
"There's an ongoing discussion of what the scope of such an initiative should be, to what extent it should concentrate on the technologies, to what extent on purely business aspects and to what extent we should concentrate on the whole, as opposed to the sum of the parts. One can also see this as one overarching phenomenon in which making a distinction between business and technology may not actually be meaningful."
Timing. Writing in March in the wake of the unveiling of Platform 3.0, Boardman addressed the other big danger, that it's far too early to start writing standards for such an emerging landscape:
"It may be too soon to define those standards for the new enterprise platform, but it is certainly time to start mapping out the area, to understand its subdivisions and how they inter-relate, and to prepare the way for standards."
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Image credit: courtesy of The Open Group.