Friday, July 31, 2009

Examining CIOs Vision of the Ambient Enterprise Against Gartner’s Top Ten Technology Trends

Not much happens in the IT World without “Gartner’s blessing.” Vendor’s don’t build products and IT organizations don’t buy them. If some phenomenon does bubble up without their blessing, you can be sure it will make a future Magic Quadrant or the next version of the ‘Top 10 Strategic Technologies List.’

As the leading IT analyst organization, Gartner’s list of top ten strategic technologies receives close scrutiny. The Gartner top ten list for 2009 includes: “Virtualization, Business Intelligence, Cloud Computing, Green IT, Unified Communications, Social Software and Social Networking, Web Oriented Architecture, Enterprise Mashups, Specialized Systems, and Servers – Beyond Blades.”

In order for Gartner to play their role as well as they do, they obviously spend even more time listening than they do writing and speaking. When Gartner speaks, more often than not, they are representing the voice of collective wisdom for vendors, enterprises and their own internal oracles. CIOs attempting to captain their IT strategies through tumultuous times are risk averse, cost sensitive to human resources needs and legacy maintenance, all the while concerned about inability to compete with possible brain drain to more agile competitors sporting more innovative strategies. The pressure is great to figure out the trends, stay on top of them, and find a vision that will steer the IT ship through the storm. Finding the right balance point in this balancing act between visionary architect and risk-averse gatekeeper is how the CIO proves their value to the enterprise.

I find it interesting to look at the top ten list and ask ‘what would a business that adopted all of these trends look like?’I call it the ambient enterprise. As Oscar Berg notes in his article Ambient awareness and findability, “The concept of ambient awareness and creating an online environment which fosters ambient awareness among employees should be interesting for any organization that has a large and distributed workforce. In a way, it can be seen as a way to mimic the dynamics, efficiency and agility you can achieve quite easily in a small organization due to reach, transparency, trust and immediacy.” Let’s look at each of Gartner’s trends and see how they help to provide a clearer picture of the ambient enterprise.

Virtualization. As Giuseepe Riva, F. Valtaro and F. Davide state: “Virtualization of the elements of the world (physical resources, including wireless sensors and actuators, network infrastructure, IT resources, software and human capabilities) will allow the interaction between individuals independently of their location…” (Ambient Intelligence, p. 248). As one can see from this broad view of virtualization, the virtualizing of network infrastructure is but part of an overall virtualization that encompasses the interaction between people and systems.

Business Intelligence. The thought behind ambient business intelligence is not new. For a good example of the discussion that’s been going on for awhile, you can google Neil Raden of Hired Brains Research’s article from October 2006 on Ambient Business Intelligence where he states that “…rather than just measuring business results after-the-fact, which is the primary role of BI today, next generation BI will advise and drive businesses with embedded analytics, real-time decision tools and vastly improved capabilities for people in every corner of the organization, and beyond it. The idea of ‘Ambient Business Intelligence’ simply means that it will surround and inform, even in ways that may not be perceived directly.”

Cloud Computing. While Cloud Computing may seem like an infrastructure discussion, Gartner and others have commented clearly on the service-based nature of cloud computing. If it isn’t offered “as-a-service” then Gartner might demote it taxonomically to something less than “cloud computing.” Similarly to the connection between virtualization and ambient intelligence, one can clearly see a connection between cloud computing and the need for the ambient enterprise to access its ambience “as-a-service.” Holger Mügge et. al., who wrote “Object Technology for Ambient Intelligence and Pervasive Computing: Language Constructs and Infrastructures (Berlin: Springer Berlin/Heidelberg, 2007),” make this prescient point: “The idea of Ambient Intelligence is that everybody will be surrounded by a dynamically-defined processor cloud, of which the applications are expected to cooperate smoothly.”

Green IT. The ambient enterprise will be a greener enterprise than its predecessor business organizations. To a large extent, this will occur because of the broader culture shift that is driving green initiatives in business. However, there is an intrinsic attraction between ambient awareness and shared hardware resources via virtualization, cloud computing and clustered data centers. Trends like mobile, thin notebook and netbook computing should limit power demands and allow the ambient enterprise to reduce client-side power consumption while at the same time utilizing cloud computing to reduce overall server side resources and energy consumption in particular.

Unified Communications. Unified communications is a set of solutions that integrate synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies. What’s the difference? The telephone is synchronous, the voicemail box is asynchronous. A fax is asynchronous. Instant messaging is synchronous. Managing multi-channel communications is not new to most enterprises, but the notion of ambient communications is that the receiver is “always on” even if it is not being observed. Providing a rational way for business users to consume all of these divergent communication technologies can be quite difficult. And of course unintentional results can sometimes follow. For example, I didn’t even remember that this blog was being consumed and reposted on the Magic Software page at FaceBook until recently, when I googled a topic and my own blog article showed up on FaceBook in the search results. Naturally, companies like Ericsson are quite interested in the topic of ambient communications. “Ambient communication is what happens when online social networks get news feeds and automatic e-mail updates, allowing users to communicate with more people more efficiently,” says a recent Ericsson blog. But they see the online world business model as more suitable to ambient communication than that of the mobile world with its per SMS fees. They know they have created a barrier, but they’re not quite sure how to overcome it.

Social Software and Social Networking. Integrating to social software, social networking and social media is becoming a top priority for CIOs seeking to carry their businesses forward in the era of Enterprise 2.0 or Web 3.0. When I first met Clara Shih, founder of FaceForce, I was impressed with her determined pursuit of integration between FaceBook and Clara is the type of person who understands the cost and complexity of aligning business strategies with the latest technology opportunities and business models. In her book, The FaceBook Era, Clara suggests that “social capital is the currency of business interactions and relationships.”

Web-Oriented Architecture. I believe it is Gartner Vice President Nick Gall who is credited with first pulling “Web-Oriented Architecture” out of the Gartner acronym machine, what does it mean? More than anything, I think it means Gartner recognized that the REST revolution was displacing SOA thinking amongst a lot of practical developers. Or perhaps, that SOA thinking just wasn’t taking hold. Regardless of the SOA vs. WOA debate, it simply underscores the nature of ambient computing in the enterprise. I believe that the need to pull resources in unstructured event-driven (i.e. ambient contexts) helps drive some of the demand for WOA.

Enterprise Mashups. With all of these ambient business processes and data flittering about, methodologies for compositing information, applications and GUIs are needed. Enterprise Mashups help to meet the need for composite services and data. Gartner has created a reference architecture and it will be interesting to see solutions emerge in this space. As my friend Avigdor Luttinger says, “I would like though to draw attention to a cool Enterprise Mashup vendor from France that virtually complies to the reference architecture and even adds legacy mashables - that’s Convertigo by” As a CIO, major concern has to be given to the need to handle legacy applications within budget constraint and despite resistance to change in some quarters.

Specialized Systems and Servers - Beyond Blades. For people like me who have emerged from the software industry, it is easy to dismiss discussions of heterogeneous systems and blades as just hardware geek talk. But in the ambient enterprise, unified communications and the open door of social networking will help to drive the need for specialized appliances or systems that can manage diverse forms of communication, and begin to provide the tagging, cataloging, filtering, archiving and security functions needed to counter or at least complement all that uncontrolled ambient enterprise.

While CIOs will view the ambient enterprise as a strategy, vendors will view the ambient enterprise as an opportunity.

As I have stated previously, the difference between the ambient enterprise and a business that simply tolerates Web 2.0 is in the degree to which the company embraces online interactivity through both a culture shift and a corresponding technical shift that incorporates the evolving semantic web and integration technologies.

The culture shift is all about embracing the ad hoc interaction of social networking, business networking, and all the myriad activities that are a part of the changing business culture: from web meetings and conferences to socially-driven searchable content and messaging to the myriad of social networking and media options.

Supporting this culture shift from an IT perspective means incorporating and mastering new technologies and developing a culture of adaptability that allows the enterprise to embrace and abandon Web 2.0 and 3.0 as needed. CIOs who embrace the ambient enterprise philosophy and find ways for unstructured ambient business processes to peacefully coexist and integrate with existing structured business processes managed by legacy systems will thrive.

Key characteristics of application platforms that serve the needs of the ambient enterprise are:

· Metadata-Centric Approach.

· Rich Internet Application Capabilities.

· Technology Agnostic.

· Mobile Ready.

Clearly, those IT organizations who wish to pursue the leading trends are going to power companies that look and feel quite different from the typical business. The ambient enterprise will be agile, better at listening, and ultimately dominate in this fast changing world.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wisdom from Michael Singer: Cross-Browser Compatibility for SaaS Solutions

The following contribution to the Magic of uniPaaS was written by Michael Singer, Application Development Manager for Magic Software Enterprises Americas

When creating a SaaS solution that runs under a browser, cross-browser compatibility is a must. In today’s world of multiple browsers and plug-ins, a good SaaS solution will have to be tested on every existing browser (including older versions of browsers). Furthermore, new features implemented in the solution would require additional cross browser testing as well. Vendors of web based, business applications have been calling for a standard in the “mad” world of browsers for a long time, but with the recent launches of Google Chrome and IE 8, it seems, the diversity and differences between the browsers is growing with every passing day.

To achieve cross-browser compatibility, a developer would have to try and limit to a minimum the amount client side validations, use of cookies and processing. All these actions should be done on the server side. This would create fewer cross browser issues on one hand, but might hamper performance on the other. Another good practice would be to create a thin layer on the server side that interfaces with the client side; this would streamline the different data that comes from the diverse browsers and make a single data structure going into the server side. In case browser errors still plague the application, custom error messages that explain the source of the problem, and recommend a type and version of a browser, could be created.

A little kid once said "There is no spoon." (The Matrix, 1999)

So let’s think out of the box. A good SaaS solution does not have to run under a browser. Rich internet applications (RIA) are "web applications that have most of the characteristics of desktop applications, typically delivered by way of standards based web browser plug-ins or independently via sandboxes or virtual machines. Examples of RIA frameworks include Curl, Adobe Flash/Adobe Flex/AIR, Java/JavaFX, uniPaaS and Microsoft Silverlight.” (Wikipedia)

In laymen’s terms, a RIA uses the internet as a communication layer, works on port 80 just like the browser (for compatibility with firewalls), has a very thin client (for compatibility with the IT department) and yet it does not run under a browser, but rather as a desktop application, providing all the capabilities and user experience you would expect from a desktop application.

There are a few solutions out there, but in most cases the architecture is similar. Most tools have a client that renders XML pages, and a server that generates them. Requests from the client are sent to the application server which returns XML documents back. These files are then rendered again to the screen using various technologies. Most platforms have a way of managing sessions or contexts, therefore allowing some kind of persistence in the user experience, and providing a solution for offline work. The clients tend to have a zero footprint on the workstation, therefore making it easy for users to log on virtually anywhere. Browsers, by the way, do the same thing. The difference is browsers know how to render HTML and not XML, and quite frankly, were not designed to be the foundation for a business application but rather should have been used for, well, browsing.

RIAs come in multiple different flavors. From the amazing graphics of Adobe Air, to the amazing productivity of Magic uniPaaS (which actually includes a SaaS platform as part of the product), depending on any project’s requirements, developers could probably find a good tool out there to create any type of SaaS application that would be user friendly, provide rich functionality, secure access and would not require any cross browser compatibility, simply, because it’s not running under a browser.

So as Morpheus said “I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.” (The Matrix, 1999)

Good Luck.
Michael Singer
July 18th 2009

Thanks Michael, great stuff.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Do ISVs Need An Application Platform that Supports the Ambient Enterprise?

As the owner or CEO of any independent software vendor can tell you, the status quo is not an option. Very early in my career in the software industry I heard people talking about how "you either grow or die."

This is brought on by rapid changes in the competitive landscape – everything from new entrants, to new features, to new adjacent categories – all of which provide alternatives to customers. Add to this the fact that business models employed by software companies are also changing and you find a business environment where people talk about terms like "survival" and "killing the competition."

The paradigm shifts have less to do with the underlying business processes addressed by the software solutions offered and more to do with the way the functionality is delivered to the business organization. The Web, Web 2.0, Web 3.0 shift is taking business use of the Internet from broadcasting to ad hoc interaction to what I call the ambient enterprise. The difference between the ambient enterprise and a business that simply tolerates Web 2.0 is in the degree to which the company embraces online interactivity through both a culture shift and a corresponding technical shift that incorporates the evolving semantic web and integration technologies.

The culture shift is all about embracing the ad hoc interaction of social networking, business networking, and all the myriad activities that are a part of the changing business culture: from web meetings and conferences to socially-driven searchable content and messaging to the myriad of social networking and media options.

Supporting this culture shift from an R&D perspective means mastering new technologies. An Independent Software Vendor needs to be able to make their software offerings relevant in light of this culture shift and the needs of their customers IT departments to embrace the ambient enterprise philosophy and integrate it with existing applications and business processes.

The application platforms that are emerging from this need will have built-in capabilities for multi-tenancy and provisioning, wide Internet accessibility, rich media types and cross-platform server support. These application platforms will be deployment agnostic in that the core business logic will be able to be served across a wide variety of ever changing deployment modes. This requires a metadata driven approach to development that abstracts the underlying technology from the business logic itself. And while this adequately describes the forward tensioning of the market, it doesn't acknowledge the current situation of the typical independent software vendor – they have client server and web-based applications and they need to continue to support existing users and deployment modes. The idea of introducing new languages for the emerging RIA client programming and simultaneously maintain server-side business logic with different languages – all the while having to manually program much of the communication between client and server is quite problematic. By reducing the number of required skillsets, value can be experienced in terms of time-to-market and cost savings. But an ISV doesn't have the option of throwing away existing application logic, application compositing must be supported by whatever application platform is selected so that ISVs have a way to forward migrate their core business logic. In these scenarios, service oriented architecture (SOA) and event-driven architecture will make sense. At the same time, the applications created must be fully scalable from a single desktop user to thousands of client-server or RIA users all the while providing management, monitoring and security.

Similarly, the demand for remote and mobile user support while maintaining a high degree of business interactivity and support for the ambient enterprise is putting strains on the old ways of developing and deploying business software. Obviously, I see the uniPaaS application platform from Magic Software as the first major application platform to step up to these requirements. I believe independent software vendors and corporate developers can address the needs of the ambient enterprise for agile development, RIA development, versatile deployment and secure, scalable applications through this application platform.

For additional information, please download our FREE! White Paper! entitled "The 5 New Essentials of Building Business Applications."