Half-Baked or Mashed: Is Mixing Enterprise IT And The Internet A Recipe For Disaster? - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications
10:30 AM
Andy Dornan
Andy Dornan

Half-Baked or Mashed: Is Mixing Enterprise IT And The Internet A Recipe For Disaster?

Enterprise mashup tools are the long tail of SOA, letting ordinary employees build applications that aren't on IT's radar screen. But what about the risks?

Everyone talks about aligning IT with business goals, but alignment is usually as far as it goes. IT and line of business remain largely separate, even if their aims are in sync. Promoters of enterprise mashups want to bring these camps closer, erasing some divisions by empowering otherwise nontechnical staff to develop their own applications.

But many IT pros are wary, and with good reason.

Mashups continue the trend of innovation being led by consumers, not business. Google Gadgets, Yahoo Pipes, and countless other sites have turned the Web into an open platform. Millions of amateur developers are mixing Web services into new applications far more quickly than can be done within a service-oriented architecture, the closest enterprise equivalent.

chart: How do you feel about non-IT staff developing their own mashups?
But unlike previous consumer fads that infiltrated the enterprise, mashups represent more than just a security threat, a way to increase employee satisfaction, and/or a chance to get technology on the cheap. Staffers who embrace mashup sites and tools represent a rich, untapped source of business innovation.

Not every IT department wants to empower its employees to that extent, of course. In our online reader poll for this article, fewer than half of respondents say they're considering letting non-IT staff build applications. But don't dismiss the technology out of hand: Even in environments where every desktop is locked down, mashups can still add value. By integrating different applications or data sources into a single front end, they can boost productivity, simplify workflows, and let enterprise applications benefit from Web services on the public Internet.

As for who exactly will build mashups, remember that as with IM, this technology was brought into the workplace by people who've never known a world without the Internet, think e-mail is outdated, and prefer RSS or widgets over Web sites. For now, the number of employees likely to construct complex mashups is limited. APIs require knowledge of JavaScript, and even tools vendors that want to make programming skills unnecessary aren't targeting everyone.

To build really useful mashups, users must understand the underlying business process; Serena Software, for example, is aiming for people who use business process management software or write Excel macros.

The first Web mashups used Google Maps, and Google's Ajax API is still a favorite of many sites. Microsoft and Yahoo now have similar services, with Yahoo presenting a Flash-based option.

In the enterprise, network management applications have begun letting IT overlay data on a map--wireless mesh vendor Tropos Networks, for example, imports Google Maps data into its browser-based management console, giving network admins a real-time view of every radio node's coverage and activity. Tracking of individual users and client devices is planned for a future release. Competitors SkyPilot and Strix Systems use Google's Earth application to do much the same thing outside a browser.

chart: Are you developing internal Web-based applications that make use of data from publicly accessible Web sites?
And general search is considered even more useful in the enterprise: More than half of all survey respondents who are building mashups have incorporated access to Google search. The likely reason for Google's popularity? Its relatively simple API, which lets developers incorporate the engine with just a few lines of code. For example, a Web page or an app that displays a list of sales prospects could automatically search the Web for more information on a person or company, either whenever the page is viewed or with a single click. It would be easy to provide this feature manually, of course, but a mashup avoids cutting, pasting, and switching among browser windows, all of which can be a big productivity drain over time.

Integration with business partners' systems is less mature, though the package-shipping industry is a clear leader in offering mashable APIs. More than a quarter of poll respondents have built mashups using FedEx's service, with slightly fewer turning to UPS. Both shippers offer Web services that access their internal billing and package-tracking applications.

Services from e-commerce sites like Amazon.com and eBay are popular among small businesses but a niche in the enterprise. Some enterprise mashups do integrate with AOL, thanks to its XML API that can return an IM user's presence status.

But mashing up services from the public Internet is only half the story--and one where enterprises are always likely to lag behind mashup sites that are actually on the Internet.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
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