Increasing numbers of businesses are outsourcing specific applications to software-as-a-service providers, and when it comes to their own software they are developing the use of service-oriented architecture.
For Vic Hansen, strategic IT architecture director at multinational food and cleaning product manufacturer Unilever, this represents nothing less than “the death of the monolithic application”.
“Our challenge is the scale of the organisation – with roughly 300,000 people, you have a long adoption time,” he says. But monoliths have all but been toppled as the company finishes its multi-year roll-out of globally consistent enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages.
Compounding the issue of long-winded roll-outs, Hansen admits that he struggles with “the pain that comes from compromising between benefit today and something [like a reusable software component] that you know you’ll need the next time around”.
Marek Suchocki, head of group and innovation at 12,500-employee engineering consultancy and business services group Mouchel, doesn’t think the monolithic app is dead quite yet.
“Its demise is some way down the line for us,” says Suchocki. “We’ve got a lot of engineering people who make heavy use of desktop apps [such as design software]. Our challenge is actually interoperability between them – that’s not something that’s going to be delivered by a web services tool that gives me something like a new diary.
“For example, I might be trying to share a large CAD model with someone who’s going to do an environmental analysis, and for that I need to transfer a huge amount of information. It’s a matter of reading it in and returning an updated file, so we’re still reliant on file-based transfer. Going over to agile web-based services is still some way off because of the nature of our people’s outputs.”
For others, though, agile web services are a way of life. Eric Guilloteau, CEO and founder of application integration company Corizon, sees SOA as bridging a “big gap” in understanding between IT and business. “They still don’t speak the same language,” he says. “SaaS, SOA, etc – it’s really complex, it’s not a language that business understands.”
But he maintains that SOA needs to go further. It needs to be extended “all the way to the user interface, to make the building of composite applications much more user-centric, faster and easier; to make them in a way that business can build applications”, he says. The key issue is not whether to adopt SOA but “how to bring SOA to the user”.
Guilloteau adds, “The best people to build the applications are the people who understand what those applications are supposed to do – what the process is supposed to enable. And that is not IT.”
The user is also the centrepiece of two other trends: the influx of Web 2.0 services and technologies into the business and the consumerisation of IT.
Both set high user expectations – and create a nightmare for helpdesk staff. “I’m picturing a guy phoning the helpdesk saying ‘I can’t get my data,
I’m running it on Linux on my fridge’,” Hansen postulates. “We’ve spent the past 30 years trying to get control over these horrible destructive things called PCs, and we’re suddenly opening up the environment to mobile phones, handhelds, mash-ups and other gizmos.”
Suchocki has his own anecdote: “One of the tools we use sniffs out what people are running on their desktops, and we found that Google Earth was one of the most popular applications. It terrified the IT department, not because we have any particular objection to Google Earth, but because users were phoning us up with support queries.”
Business users sourcing freeware like Google Earth opens up major questions about software licensing and data quality. “Twenty years ago, someone writing a report might have had to do some real work, but now I can just go on the Net, cut and paste, and I’m off to the races,” says Roger James, director of information systems at the University of Westminster.
“Bad data can travel much faster these days, and there is a fine line between scholarship and plagiarism. I think that will start to have a big impact within companies as well as within education,” he concludes.