The choices among enterprise application development and deployment technologies have never been greater. But what's truly different about today's applications is that line of business people can have a greater impact than ever on how technology supports their productive work.
By exploiting mashups, situational applications, Web 2.0 techniques and lightweight data access, new breeds of Web-based applications and services are being cobbled together fast, cheap, and without undue drain on IT staffs and developers. Tools and online services both are being used to combine external web services like maps and weather with internal data feeds and services to add whole new dimensions of business intelligence and workflow automation, often in a few days, often without waiting in line in order to get IT's attention.
And while many of these mashups happen outside of IT's purview, more IT leaders see these innovative means as a productivity boon that can't be denied, and which may even save them time and resources while improving IT's image in the bargain. The trick is to manage the people and new processes without killing off the innovation.
To help weed through the agony and ecstasy of Enterprise 2.0 application development and deployment in the enterprise, I recently chatted with Rod Smith, Vice President of Internet Emerging Technologies at IBM (IBM), and Stefan Andreasen, the Founder and CTO of Kapow Technologies.
Here are some excerpts:
In times of innovation you get some definite chaos coming through, but IT and line of businesses see this as a big opportunity... The methodology here is very different from the development methodology we’ve been brought up to do. It’s much more collaborative, if you’re line of business, and it’s much more than a set of specifications.
This current wave is really driven by line of business getting IT in their own hands. They’ve started using it, and that’s created the chaos, but chaos is created because there is a need. The best thing that’s happening now is acknowledging that line-of-business people need to do their own thing. We need to give them the tools, environments and infrastructure so they can do it in a controlled way -- in an acceptable, secured way.
... As we opened up this content [we found] that this isn't just about IT managing or controlling it. It’s really a partnership now. ... The line of business wants to be involved when information is available and published. That’s a very different blending of responsibility than we've seen before on this.
There is a lot of information that’s out there, both on the public Web and on the private Web, which is really meant to be human-readable information. You can just think about something as simple as going to U.S. Geological Service and looking at fault lines of earthquakes and there isn't any programmatic API to access this data.
This kind of data might be very important. If I am building a factory in an earthquake area, I don’t want to buy a lot that is right on the top of a fault line. So I can turn this data into a standard API, and then use that as part of my intelligence to find the best property for my new factory.
It’s just not internal information they want. It's external information, and we really are empowering these content developers now. The types of applications that people are putting together are much more like dashboards of information, both internally and externally over the Internet, that businesses use to really drive their business. Before, the access costs were high.
Now the access costs are continuing to drop very low, and people do say, "Let’s go ahead and publish this information, so it can be consumed and remixed by business partners and others,” rather than thinking about just a set of APIs at a low level, like we did in the past with Java.
If you want to have automatic access to data or content, you need to be able to access it in a standard way. What is happening now with Web Oriented Architecture [WOA] is that we're focusing on a few standard formats like RESTful services and on feeds like RSS and Atom.
So first you need to be able to access your data that way. This is exactly what we do. Our customers turn data they work with in an application into these standard APIs and feeds, so they can work with them in an automated way. ... With the explosion of information out there, there's a realization that having the right data at the right time is getting more and more important. There is a huge need for getting access in an automated way.
The more forward-thinking people in IT departments realize that the faster they can put together publishable data content, they can get a deeper understanding in a very short time about what their customers want. They can then go back and decide the best way to open up that data. Is it through syndication feeds, XML, or programmatic API?
Before, IT had to guess usage and how many folks might be touching it, and then build it once and make it scalable. ... We've seen a huge flip now. Work is commensurate with some results that come quickly. Now we will see more collaboration coming from IT on information and partnerships.
What is interesting about it is, if you think about what I just described -- where we mashed in some data with AccuWeather -- if that had been an old SOA project of nine or 18 months, that would have been a significant investment for us, and would have been hard to justify. Now, if that takes a couple of weeks and hours to do -- even if it fails or doesn’t hit the right spot -- it was a great tool for learning what the other requirements were, and other things that we try as a business.
That’s what a lot of this Web 2.0 and mashups are about -- new avenues for communication, where you can be engaged and you can look at information and how you can put things together. And it has the right costs associated with it -- inexpensive. If I were going to sum up a lot of Web 2.0 and mashups, the magnitude of drop in “customization cost” is phenomenal.
What’s fun about this, and I think Stefan will agree, is that when I go to a customer, I don’t take PowerPoint charts anymore. I look on their website and I see if they have some syndication feeds or some REST interfaces or something. Then I look around and I see if I can create a mashup of their material with other material that hadn’t been built with before. That’s compelling.
People look and they start to get excited because, as you just said, they see business patterns in that. "If you could do that, could you grab this other information from so-and-so?" It’s almost like a jam session at that point, where people come up with ideas.