As business technologists assess their companies' IT infrastructures, it can be an archaeological dig into the past, with mainframes, outdated PCs and servers, and years-old software not far beneath the surface. "Client-server, unfortunately, was a nonstandardized way of gluing things together," says Michael Corcoran, a VP with software vendor Information Builders. "There were too many options. Architecturally, it failed."
Since few companies can afford to ditch all those older technologies, new architectures must accommodate them. In this respect, Corcoran says, the emergence of Internet architectures in the mid-1990s--with IP backbones, Web servers, and browser-based clients--helped smooth the way for service-based architectures. The latest versions of commercial software from most major developers will help in the transition. For instance, the next release of Information Builders' flagship product, WebFocus, will come with the ability to generate reports and analytics as Web services. Microsoft, Oracle, and dozens of other companies are tweaking their products in similar fashion.
IBM says it cuts both ways--businesses need to develop IT architectures that preserve existing investments while becoming more accommodating of changing conditions. "The past 40 years of IT evolution have left most companies with an enterprise computing infrastructure that is heterogeneous, widely distributed, and increasingly complex," IBM says in a white paper describing its new "On-Demand Business" push. "To realize the benefits of On-Demand Business, customers will need to embrace a new computing architecture that allows them to best leverage existing assets as well as those that lie outside traditional corporate boundaries."
In IBM's estimation, that means IT environments need to reflect four characteristics: thorough data integration; "open" standards-based computing; virtualization, in the form of utilitylike delivery and grid computing; and self-managing, self-healing autonomic capabilities. Not coincidentally, those same characteristics are the thrust of IBM's product and services strategy.
The trick to getting all the elements of an IT architecture to work together hinges on having a complete and flexible design and the right tools to manage it. Motorola's Redshaw says it's critical that a service-based architecture describe how business processes get mapped into software deliverables and account for the growing inventory of Web services as they're developed.
The alternative? For companies that want adaptive IT systems that change with the business, there is none. Says Redshaw, "There's no way to get there from here unless you go down this track."--with John Soat