Are We Entering a Golden Age of IT?

How Pioneering Technology Architects View the Current Business Challenges and IT Opportunities

November 13, 2008

How do you leap ahead even in harsh economic times? Smart technology architects model their businesses to reduce complexity. They view exceptions as the norm. They design robust, dynamic distributed systems using commodity computing infrastructures.

For over 10 years, our small band of technology architects (many of whom have now turned into business strategists) has been meeting twice a year. This is my “by invitation only” group known as Patty’s Pioneers. Each year, I learn an incredible amount from the rich sharing of problems and approaches these guys and gals are using to design and evolve their businesses’ technology architectures. The same patterns re-emerge over and over again, across industries as diverse as financial services, ocean shipping, energy management, retail, information services, manufacturing, supply chain logistics, and solving the world’s largest problems.

Each year, the patterns of our conversations form a semi-coherent picture in my head. I thought you might be interested in my non-Geek’s view of the way I see that these brilliant and persistent “big thinkers” think about the things they work on. (Pioneers: I have kept the quotes anonymous, but I am happy to attribute them! My apologies to any of you who may feel I’ve missed the point or over-simplified! Please chime in!)

What’s Going On in the Economy. Many of the Pioneers have deep financial backgrounds. So, of course, we spent some time talking about the state of the economy. I think the consensus was summed up best this way: “There was a fraudulent set of activities that started the butterfly effect of mistrust. Each leg of trust got knocked out. …Trust will come back when there are profits to be made. Everyone’s going to wake up and want to make money.” We had a really interesting and informative discussion about economic trends in different parts of the world, which included the predictions that European businesses are in a lot more trouble than most people think, that most small companies that are importers and exporters are going to go out of business because they can’t get letters of credit, and that the stock market will “bottom out” at 5,000 to 6,000.

What we can do about it? Pioneers felt that what they can do to help is to provide more transparency. All of the systems and architectures they design have transparency built in. Everything is visible and understandable. Proprietary stuff may be hidden behind APIs, but it’s not impenetrable. They also pointed out that the companies that will do best are those in which the top executives understand the means of production in their industries. Executives who are good at “managing” are no longer able to cope. Executives who have a visceral, emotional feel for the means of production in their respective industries will survive.

Why We’re Entering a Golden Age for IT. Pioneers are convinced that tight times call for innovative uses of technology. They see a golden age of IT when those who have already invested in smart architectures will vault ahead of those who have under-invested and/or invested in the wrong approaches. “Our board recognizes that they’ll need more information that’s processed in ways that are digestible to them, ways that let them better synthesize that information.”

What’s the Right Way to Think about Technology Architecture?

Model the Business. Most pioneers create an ab-stract model of their business using business objects with attributes and/or metadata. This is a living model. It evolves organically to reflect the dynamic relationships among entities and the attributes that become important over time. “Information is the proxy for reality. If you don’t have a proxy for reality, you’re doomed!” The brilliance in the systems that Pioneers create is that they enable the people in their businesses to understand how their businesses actually work!

Monitor Events and Exceptions. While traditional business process consultants and IT professionals think in terms of transforming, streamlining, and automating workflows, Pioneers view the world as “one big exception engine.” Stuff happens. Automated processes are only as good as the exception handling they provide. Pioneers assume that exceptions are the rule. So everything they design assumes that events will be delayed, that people will change their minds, that interruptions will take place.

Combine Objects and Methods Dynamically Each Time that a Service Is Requested. Pioneers favor near real-time binding of behaviors or methods to objects or entities. For example, a “check credit” service may be using different third-party credit rating services each time that request is made, depending on the context — Whose credit are we checking? For what pur-pose? Which ratings services are most appropriate right now? How many do we need to check? In which order?

Since change happens and improvisations are the norm, it makes the most sense to instantiate the state of the virtual view of the real world as close to the time that something (transaction, state change, event trigger) happens as possible. That way you can ensure that you always have the right context for the situation at hand.

Maintain the Current Version of the Truth in Cache/Memory. In order to ensure that their dy-namically binding applications perform well, Pio-neers also make lavish use of memory and disk cache to store the current state of everything. That way, the only time there’s a performance hit is for those few things whose state may have changed since the last time they were called into play.

Analytics and Computation. Pioneers design and use many algorithms that are computationally-intensive and which require aggressive technology calculations. Like all good architects, Pioneers try to pre-compute anything that isn’t likely to change on the fly and store it so that results can be retrieved and acted upon quickly. Believe it or not, mainframes still have their place. But the Pioneers’ tendency is to distribute computationally-intense loads across parallel computing clusters and/or to distribute the load across multiple systems and/or to perform the processing as close to the end-consumer as possible (in a rich client-side application).

Data Structures. Pioneers model objects, yet store data in...


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