Application priorities


In practice:
Ten years ago the board of supermarket chain Tesco asked Nick Lansley and a few of his colleagues to take on a speculative challenge: “See what you can do with this thing called the Internet,” they were told. Today, Lansley runs the new technologies group at the world’s biggest e-grocer,, with annual sales of more than £500 million in 2003 and with profits of £11 million.

At a time when many organisations are questioning the value of in-house systems development, the story of the creation of is a reminder of how innovative, in-house development can be a true business differentiator. For example, the company’s move from a CD-loadable online shopping service to a fully browser-based service in 2001 took the development team into the (then) uncharted waters of web services. They found that the nascent technology of Microsoft .Net enabled them to integrate multiple user client devices into the company’s core systems without having to go down the traditional route of building separate code stacks for each.

Moreover, its use of web services provides the means of ‘exposing’ key parts of its online services to affiliates selling products through the web site, enabling them to share some of’s core components such as customer log-in, product search, basket viewing and check out.

The focus on Microsoft technologies – not always regarded as cutting- edge – has posed no barrier to technical innovation. On the contrary, Langley points out, even before moving to .Net, had used Visual Basic and Windows CE to build a wireless mobile shopping application that helps its online order fulfilment to optimise the in-store ‘picking process’.

If’s experience holds a key lesson for other businesses about development, said Langley, it is that business thinking and not IT fashion must be the key factor in critical decision-making. That has meant ignoring a number of popular development approaches, such as outsourcing. “From the start, we wanted to remain in control, and we took the view that no one understands our business as well as we do,” said Lansley.



Is information technology a commodity? According to Chris Horn, the founder and CEO of Iona Technologies, it probably is. But, then again, so is money, and no one would argue that managing money – including its investment in IT – is not a strategic issue.

Certainly, when the IT in question is the middleware that integrates the business systems of modern enterprises, anything other than a strategic approach to its management and development is unlikely to be successful.

“Middleware is intrinsic to almost every modern application,” says Horn. “Every application is partitioned and needs communications [middleware] to link the front, the middle and the back.”

These links between and within applications have to be treated as a strategic issue because once they are in place they often remain so for a decade. They are like railway tracks, he maintains, connecting important commercial centres: “You want to be able to lay them once, you certainly don’t want to have to keep digging them up and relaying them.”

The wrong track

Unfortunately, today’s businesses are dealing with a middleware legacy that reflects the fact that much of the track that has already been built was laid down to solve discrete tactical problems. “There are too many railroad tracks of different widths and gauges,” says Horn. He cites an accumulation of proprietary solutions that different vendors have developed over the years, not to mention the vast investment in “dark matter” – solutions that enterprises have devised in-house.

The integration strategy of the future has to be focused on building standard means of linking applications and business processes together, but getting there is not going to be easy. “In some ways,” says Horn, “I think the situation today is even worse. We still have all the old railway lines and the dark matter. We also now have three standard [modern development and deployment platforms] – Corba, J2EE and .NET.”

Supporting all three of these is not an attractive option for any organisation. But simply choosing one to the exclusion of the others is not an option either, as no organisation exists in isolation from partners, suppliers or customers, who will each make integration infrastructure choices of their own.

Just say ‘yes’

The good news, says Horn, is that there are some common threads that will enable these – and many of the existing applications and processes – to work together. Above all, the widespread adoption of web services technology by all the main IT vendors – including, significantly, Microsoft – will prove critical.

While the technology is not a panacea for the shortcomings of systems integration, web services – deployed within the context of a service-oriented architecture – should offer the opportunity for the IT community to develop a common vocabulary for the communication of business and IT functions.

And, potentially, there is much more to come. “The software industry needs to grow up,” says Horn, and provide the same degree of predictable and reliable increases in productivity that the hardware business has achieved, as encapsulated by Moore’s Law of microprocessor performance growth.

In the software world, says Horn, “this will come about when software starts to be capable of writing itself” – responding automatically to changes defined at the level of business logic. This is still some way off, but web services, says Horn, “are at least a good starting point”.


Effective IT survey results: Integrate smartly, develop simply
One definition of an effective IT organisation is that it is able to quickly and efficiently match systems resources to business requirements. To do this inevitably requires expertise in, and commitment to, software integration and development – precisely the kind of costly and time-consuming activities that cash-strapped IT organisations might be expected to abandon.

In fact, despite the chillier economic climate, Information Age readers appear to have retained a commitment to IT innovation, and with it the will to integrate and develop systems.

A hefty 56% of survey respondents have opted to invest in web services, for instance, and 47% have chosen to invest in a standard application server platform. The other integration and development options – IP network consolidation, point-to-point integration tools and business process management (BPM) and high level integration tools – were each adopted by at least 40% of respondents.

By and large, those IT organisations that have maintained an investment in development and integration skills have been rewarded. Point-to-point integration tools, although ranked the least effective IT strategy overall, still received a generally positive rating from 80% of respondents, and BPM and high-level tool adopters were sufficiently satisfied with their investment to rank it the 16th most effective IT strategy overall.

More encouragingly, the use of IP networking and application server platforms, two of the most hyped technologies in the market today, received glowing ratings from adopters. IP networking, although a significant capital investment even for green-field sites, received the highest ranking, with over half of those adopting the technology saying it had improved service levels or had proved “very effective”. That made IP networking the 11th most effective technology.

The use of a standardised application server platform was regarded as having even greater benefit. Users in the survey rated that approach as the fifth most effective IT strategy overall, with one in six rating it “very effective”.

As for web services – possibly the most widely lauded technology in play today – appreciation of its benefits are growing fast. Users rated it the 13th most effective strategy overall, with 50% saying it had improved service levels.



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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