Friday, January 9, 2009

Predicting vitality of 'SOA' completely misses the point -- legacy IT is dead

While the software market gnashes its teeth over how alive service oriented architecture (SOA) is, the much more important opportunity -- and perhaps unique in the history of IT -- is being overlooked.

There's never better a better time to kill off your legacy IT systems.

The next two years presents the architects and strategists of enterprise IT an unprecedented and probably not to be repeated chance to re-factor the way they do business. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is mulling over the implications of a "reset," rather than a recession, and it is the correct way to look at this period.

Here's why: It's long been an uncomfortable reality that the means of computing for the past 20 years have piled up inside of data centers, expensive and outdated but too complex and costly to replace. Nobody has wanted to rip and replace because of the transition pain and uncertainty. The old guard has been presented with a lot of good excuses for simply bearing the load of aging systems' costs while still piling on more new systems.

We now have the unique option of lowering the tolerance for the ongoing cost of the old, while finding far fewer excuses for putting off the pain of change. In other words, now is the time for rip and replace. But it's more than that, it's time for executing on IT transformation writ large, of moving beyond physical systems and into the hybrid pool of myriad services ... with the end goal of finding the right combination of systems and services for each and every IT problem set.

And defining IT differently needs to be done, too, while we're at it. We need to stop thinking of IT as an attached appendage of each and every specific and isolated enterprise. Yep, 2000 fully operational and massive appendages for the Global 2000. All costly, hugely redundant, unique largely only in how complex and costly they are all on their own.

Instead, IT should be seen as a set of problems to be solved by the best means, and common means should be sought for a great deal of the load. Rather than an IT appendage at each enterprises' actual locations, solutions should be brought to the IT problems by any best means. It means catching up to reality. The reality is that the boundaries of IT are permeable, malleable and dynamic. Being caught in the old world of on-premises and monolithic systems for each application and data set is at odds with what is available efficiently as services -- internal, external and hybrid. Corporations have long sought these methods for procuring other business services, and IT is no different.

As Moore's Law and other modern IT productivity improvements have drastically cut the cost of newer IT solutions and technologies, it has made the costs of maintaining the legacy systems all the higher. The personnel and maintenance arsenals these systems require simply to keep producing a static productivity benefit are in a word ... wasteful. We have been through a long period of spending a lot of money at integration capabilities to extend the value of aging systems by trying to conjure a multiplier effect of 1 system integrated to 1 system equals 3 systems value. More often than not the math does not return a high enough rate of return.

These effects have given enterprise IT the stigma of black box cost centers. The business strategists feel IT is an extortion racket. They fear more of the same, but now with less corporate revenues and therefore less IT budget to work with.

And that's where SOA's death comes in. If the ROI on the money spent to achieve SOA benefits is not overwhelming, or transparent, the logic goes, then the effort is mute, dead, not worth the pain. Actually the opposite is true, and now more than ever.

The analogy of trying to change the wings of an airplane while keeping it flying is often used to describe the quandary of re-architecting your IT universe to an appreciable level while also meeting the SLAs and expanding the capacity and reliability of the older systems. In other words, the relentless pressure of keeping up with growth in the use of and demand on IT has handicapped the task of modernization. With a tight budget since 2001, many IT departments are far too busy putting out the fires of meeting demand to be much involved with resetting the way in which IT is conducted.

One of the chief pain points in avoiding the rip and replaces necessary to move aggressively to modern IT services -- services for integration/interoperability, for infrastructure resources, for app dev, for data management, for software as a service (SaaS), for cloud, for hybrids, for business process modeling, for many aspects of the IT lifecycle -- is that IT has been too busy, too stretched. It's consequently perceived as too risky ... Too hard to sell to the bean counters. Conventional logic holds that this only get worse in a recession.

Increasing demand for IT performance has been a convenient excuse to stay the legacy course, keep investments in new technology modest -- after all, we don't have the time to absorb SOA properly. Let's just get more Band-Aids. This all, like a giant Ponzi scheme, works quite well when the economy and profits are growing. We now know those days are over for some considerable period of time.

And so here we may find the silver lining, for IT strategists at least, in the rapid and severe economic contraction now upon us. A confluence of variables should tip the scales to make IT transformation more practical and attainable than ever. But you may only have a year or two to capitalize on this opportunity.

I suggest that IT organizations look to a new breed of triage for their existing IT universe, and cull out and rip out as much as possible. Kill it. Seek the newer -- dare I say it -- vital SOA and SaaS/cloud alternatives. Examine how open source software and models make sense. Liberally deploy virtualization. Look at how virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) makes sense for more workers. Examine how a netbook or mobile device can fill the needs of more users in more places in more ways.

And here's the key: Actually define the business processes you need to support first, then identify the resources that the users and customers need to act on these processes, and procure and integrate the IT services (however best available) to fulfill the model. Repeat. Reuse assets as appropriate. Govern the whole she-bang centrally with policy and automation as the goal. This is SOA. It is not dead.

At the same time, boot up the next generation data centers that can play in hybrid services models and at lean total costs -- and inject as much logic and data from the older systems as possible. Use the SaaS and cloud options available now to replace the older systems, and then decide the best medium-term means to produce or procure those services. Find a governance model that allows you to manage the services and resources regardless of where they reside or how they are procured. Rip out and kill the remaining legacy systems that cost you dearly and provide static or declining productivity. You can do this. Now is the time. Be brave.

Many companies will slowly go under, go bankrupt or plunge into a new ownership form that produces the ultimate reset for IT. It is the off button. Just turn the IT off and sell the hardware on eBay. Those firms -- or remaining valued elements of the old firms -- that emerge from the ashes of these drastic business restructurings will also get an abrupt IT reset. They may be able to begin anew with services as central, with SaaS as pervasive, and with cloud-based app dev the norm. But that's some tough sledding to get to more productive and agile IT.

Many more companies will see a period of reduced demand on the IT systems. If you lay off 15% of the workforce, there's bound to be more slack in the demand on applications (once you've provisioned the employees off properly). If your revenues decline by 30%, there will be more slack on the demand on applications and data servers. If you merge with another company, there's a lot of IT redundancy to remove.

You no longer have the excuse of being too busy and too capacity-strained to entertain those ultimately productivity-rich systems resets and to embrace SOA. And you can attain the IT modernization benefits now at far lower capital costs because you can bargain stridently and successfully with the integrators, hardware vendors, software providers, and all the rest. You find qualified employees to hire. You can seek out more IT services on a per-user, per-month subscription model. No need to pay for the IT behind those gone 15% of laid-off employees until you rehire them, and then watch your IT costs become far more commensurate to your actual needs. You won't need the huge capital outlays first, and the productivity later.

Those companies that make this transition now will be powerfully more agile, with lower total IT costs and the ability to swiftly exploit new SOA, SaaS and cloud innovations over the coming years. You need to both survive the recession and position yourself to dominate afterward, in the brave new world. You'll need the right IT mentality and models to do it.

So the actual costs of meaningful change in IT for the next few years will come at an historically low real cost, with very high rates of return after the transition. And the portion of IT spend devoted to capital outlays will decline. And you can bargain (perhaps even push out payments for 6 months or a year) on the professional services, integrators, outsourcers, and other transitional expenses. Other aspects of the global economy are facing a reset, as are governaments, and IT should be a leader not a laggard -- both as an example and as an enabler to the larger transitions.

Now is the time to rip and replace your thinking about IT, and so you'll want to replace your legacy systems and obsolete IT solution models with vital and efficient SOA processes and hybrid IT resources acquisition models.

Actually, now to think of it, high-cost and lock-in legacy IT is what is really dead, finally. RIP.