Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

Vertical User Experience Platform

July 5, 2012

Whilst discussing what a UXP is and who the key players are with a customer I was asked an interesting question, “is there a need for industry (banking, retail, government …) specific UXP ?”.

My immediate reaction was that the technologies in a UXP were generic horizontal solutions that should be agnostic to the industry they were implemented in. The fact that they were specialised solutions and are not industry specific to me was a key advantage. So why would you want a content management solution or collaboration tool that was specific to banking or retail?

The response was interesting: For many smaller companies the complexity of managing their web presence is huge, even if they buy into a single vendor approach for example using Microsoft Sharepoint they still have a huge task to set up the individual components (content management, collaboration, social tools and apps) and this is only made harder with the need to support an increasing array of devices (phone, tablet, TV etc…).

It seems there is a need for an offering that provides an integrated full UXP that can be set-up easily and quickly without the need for an army of developers. Compromises on absolute flexibility are acceptable provided a rich set of templates (or the ability to create custom templates) were provided, such that the templates handled device support automatically. Further the UXP might offer vertical specific content feeds out of the box.

As in my previous blog “The End of Silo Architectures” using a UXP front end technology to create industry specific apps is a great idea. Such a solution could not only provide the business functionality (e.g. Internet banking, insurance quotes/claims, stock trading) but the technical issues of cross device and browser support, security and performance.

So whilst I can understand the requirement and the obvious benefit, the idea of a vertical UXP to me seems like providing a vertical specific CRM or Accounting package. The real answer is that it makes sense to provide vertical apps and use generic Content, Collaboration and social tools from a UXP. Ideally the generic components are integrated and have easy to configure templates.

As I have highlighted before though the UXP is complex not just from a technology perspective but also from the perspective of skills, processes and standards. The first step for any organisation must be to create a strategy for UXP: audit what you currently have, document what you need (take into consideration current trends like social, gamification and mobile) and then decide how you move forward.

Unfortunately this area currently seems ill serviced by the consultancy companies so it may just be up to you to roll your own strategy.

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The end of silo architectures

June 28, 2012

From my discussions with customers and prospects it is clear that the final layer in their architectures is being defined by UXP (see my previous posts). So whether you have a Service or Web Oriented architecture most organisations have already moved or are in the middle of moving towards a new flexible layered architecture that will provide more agility and breaks down the closed silo architectures they previously owned.

However solution vendors that provide “out the box” business solutions whether they be vertical (banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, retail or other) or horizontal (CRM, ERP, supply chain management) have not necessarily been as quick to open up their solutions. Whilst many will claim that they have broken out of the silo’s by “service enabling” their solution, many still have proprietary requirements to specific application servers, databases, middleware or orchestration solutions.

However recently I have come across two vendors, Temenos (global core banking) and CCS (leading insurance platform) who are breaking the mould.

CCS have developed Roundcube to be a flexible componentised solution to address the full lifecycle of insurance from product definition, policy administration to claims. Their solution is clearly layered, service enabled and uses leading 3rd party solutions to manage orchestration, integration and presentation whilst they focus on their data model and services. Their approach allows an organisation to buy into the whole integrated suite or just blend specific components into existing solutions they may have. By using leading 3rd party solutions, their architecture is open for integration into other solutions like CRM or financial ledgers.

Temenos too has an open architecture (Temenos Enterprise Framework Architecture) which allows you to use any database, application server, or integration solution. Their oData enabled interaction framework allows flexibility at the front end too.

Whilst these are both evolving solutions, they have a clear strategy and path to being more open and therefore more flexible. Both are also are providing a solution that can be scaled from the smallest business to the largest enterprises. Their solutions will therefore more naturally blend into organisations rather than dictate requirements.

Whilst packaged solutions are often enforced by business sponsors this new breed of vendor provides the flexibility that will ensure the agility of changes the business requires going forward. It’s starting to feel like organisations can “have their cake and eat it” if they make the right choices when selecting business solutions.

If you’ve seen other solutions in different verticals providing similar open architectures I would be very happy to hear about them at dharmesh@edgeipk.com.

Future of mobile: Part 3

May 13, 2012

Today I have 3 GPS devices, 4 Cameras, 3 Video cameras, 3 movie players, 5 music players and the list goes on. All of these are in a variety of devices that I use in different places for different purposes.

Drilling down into the detail what I actually have is a phone, a desktop home PC, a laptop, an iPod, a car stereo, in-car GPS, a TV+HD/DVD Player, a digital SLR, that’s just me and not including what the family has.

This presents a number of challenges, risks as well as a lot of cost…

Most of us want as little duplication of cost as possible. Already even though cars come with stereos many people are now plugging in their MP3 players, utilising the speakers in the car only. Many people will also use their phone’s GPS rather than the car’s. Newer TV’s have wireless access to browsing and social apps. I’m tempted by the hype of tablet computing, but have to ask myself, why? I have all the compute options I need?

More devices mean more synchronisation issues for personal settings and personal data. While cloud based services will resolve many of these issues, it is still early days to move everything into the cloud as users of MegaUpLoad found.

In 1999 I went to a tech show in Vegas, where I saw a potential solution to the problem from Sony. They were demonstrating the concept of “apps on sticks”. Basically these were memory sticks (max 32mb at the time) with other devices, like GPS, radio and even camera on the stick. The idea was simple you’d simply plug your GPS stick into your phone, laptop, car or any other device, rather than have that function in multiple devices. This approach would have required a lot of standardisation and clearly is a concept that never came to fruition.

More recently Asus have launched their PadFone, this is a smartphone that comes with a tablet screen. When you need to work with a bit more screen estate, you simply slot your phone into the back of the screen and hey presto you have a tablet that can use the 3G or wireless connection on your phone. Apart from being able to charge your phone, the tablet screen also integrates with the phone itself so voice and video calls can be made/received using the tablet screen.

This concept really works for me, and I could see myself buying into the family of products: TV, Car Stereo, projector. This with the ability to have my data in the cloud so losing the phone is not the end of the world, makes for a great solution. Whether the phone slots in, or connects wirelessly the ability to drive a different screen from my phone, either works for me as a concept. Maybe the idea could be taken even further so that the circuitry for the device could be slotted into the phone itself?

As I’ve discussed in my previous blogs there are many new avenues for phones, in shape, size and function. It would be difficult to predict the future with so many possibilities, but one thing for sure is that for gadget geeks like me, the phone is going to be the constant source of innovation we thrive on

A dirty IT architecture may not be such a bad thing

April 19, 2012

For some time both CTOs and architects have looked at enterprise architectures and sought to simplify their portfolio of applications. This simplification is driven by the needs to reduce the costs of multiple platforms driven largely through duplication.

Duplication often occurs because two areas of the business had very separate ‘business needs’ but both needs had been met by a ‘technical solution’, for example a business process management tool or some integration technology. Sometimes the duplication is a smaller element of the overall solution like a rules engine or user security solution.

Having been in that position it’s quite easy to look at an enterprise and say “we only need one BPM solution, one integration platform, one rules engine”. As most architects know though, these separations aren’t that easy to make, because even some of these have overlaps. For example, you will find rules in integration technology as well as business process management and content management (and probably many other places too). The notion of users, roles and permissions is often required in multiple locations also.

Getting into the detail of simplification, it’s not always possible to eradicate duplication altogether, and quite often it won’t make financial sense to build a solution from a ‘toolbox’ of components.

Often the risk of having to build a business solution from ground up, even with using these tools, is too great and the business prefer to de-risk implementation with a packaged implementation. This packaged solution in itself may have a number of these components, but the advantage is they are pre-integrated to provide the business with what they need.

For some components duplication may be okay, if a federated approach can be taken. For example, in the case of user management it is possible to have multiple user management solutions, that are then federated so a ‘single view of users’ can be achieved. Similar approaches can be achieved for document management, but in the case of process management I believe this has been far less successful.

Another issue often faced in simplification is that the tools often have a particular strength and therefore weaknesses in other areas of their solution. For example, Sharepoint is great on site management and content management, but poorer on creating enterprise applications. Hence a decision has to be made as to whether the tool’s weaknesses are enough of an issue to necessitate buying an alternative, or whether workarounds can be used to complement the tool.

The technical task of simplification is not a simple problem in itself. From bitter experience, this decision is more often than not made on technology and for the greater good of the enterprise, but more often on who owns the budget for the project.

Is the dream of re-use outdated?

April 12, 2012

Since the early days of programming developers have chased the dream of creating code that can be used by other developers so that valuable time can be saved by not re-inventing the wheel. Over time, there have been many methods of re-use devised, and design patterns to drive re-use.

Meanwhile the business users are demanding more applications and are expecting them delivered faster, creating pressure for IT departments. Sometimes this pressure is counter-productive, because it means that there is no time to build re-usability into applications, and the time saved is just added on to future projects.

Could we use the pressure to take a different approach? One that focuses on productivity and time to market, rather than design and flexibility as typically sought by IT?

I’m going to draw an analogy with a conversation I had with an old relative that had a paraffin heater. This relative had the heater for many years, and is still using it today because it works. When I questioned the cost of paraffin over the buying an energy efficient electric heater which was cheaper to run, the response was this one works and it’s not broken yet, why replace it? Now for most appliances we are in a world that means we don’t fix things, we replace them.

This gave me the idea, which I’m sure is not new, of disposable applications. Shouldn’t some applications just be developed quickly without designing for re-use, flexibility and maintainability? With this approach, the application would be developed with maximum speed to meet requirements rather than elegant design knowing that the application will be re-developed within a short time (2-3 years).

So can there be many applications that could be thrown away and re-developed from scratch? Well in today’s world of ‘layered’ applications it could be that only the front end screens need to be ‘disposable’, with business services and databases being designed for the long term, since after all there is less change in those areas generally.

Looking at many business to consumer sites certainly self-service applications and point of sales forms typically could be developed as disposable applications because generally the customer experience evolves and the business like to ‘refresh the shop front’ regularly.

My experience of the insurance world is that consumer applications typically get refreshed on average every 18-24 months, so if it takes you longer than 12 months to develop your solution it won’t be very long before you are re-building it.

When looking at the average lifetime of a mobile app, it is clear that end users see some software as disposable, using it a few times then either uninstalling or letting it gather dust in a dusty corner.

So there may be a place for disposable apps, and not everything has to be designed for re-use. This is more likely in the area of the user experience because they tend to evolve regularly. So is it time you revised your thinking on re-use?

HTML5 gets a database

June 9, 2011

As a relative late comer to HTML5 trying to catch up on a spec that spans over a 1000 pages is no mean feat, let alone the fact that the definition of what makes up HTML5 is covered across several specs (see previous blog on standards spaghetti). If you’ve been following this series then you’ll have worked out I have a few favourite features that I think will radically change the perception of web applications, and you guessed it HTML5’s support for database access is another.

The specification started out as early as 2006 with WebSimpleDB (aka WebSQL), and went as far as implementation into many browsers including webkit, Safari, Chrome and Firefox. From what I can find Oracle made the original proposal in 2009 and the W3C made a switch to Indexed DB sometime in 2010. Although Mozilla.org already had their own implementation using SQL-Lite, they too preferred IndexedDB). The current status as of April 2011 of the IndexedDB spec is that it is still in draft, and according to www.caniuse.com early implementations exist in Chrome 11 and Firefox 4. Microsoft have released a prototype on their html labs site at to show their current support .

Clearly it is not ready for live commercial applications in the short term, but it is certainly something worth keeping your eye on and to plan for. When an application requires more than simple key value pairs or requires large amounts of data, IndexDB should be your choice over HTML 5’s WebStorage api’s (localStorage and sessionStorage).

The first important feature about IndexDB is that it is not a relational database but in fact an object store. Hence there are no tables, rows or columns and there is no SQL for querying the data. Instead data is stored as Javascript objects and navigated using cursors. The database can have indexes defined however.

Next there are two API modes of interaction, Asynchronous and Synchronous API’s. As you would imagine synchronous API’s DO block the calling thread (i.e each call waits for a response before returning control and data). Therefore it follows that the asynchronous API’s do NOT block the calling thread. When using asynchronous API’s a callback function is required to respond to the events fired by the database after an instruction has been completed.

Both approaches provide API’s for opening, closing and deleting a database. Databases are versioned, and each database can have one or more objectstores. There are CRUD API’s for datastore access (put, get, add, delete) as well as API’s to create and delete index’s.

Access to the datastore is enveloped in transactions, and a transaction can be used to access multiple data stores, as well as multiple actions on a datastore.

At a very high level, there you have it, IndexDB is a feature that allows you to manage data in the browser. This will not only be useful for online applications (e.g. a server based warehouse could export data cubes for local access) but also for offline applications to hold data until a connection can be established. I’d fully expect a slew of Javascript frameworks to add value ontop of what the standards provide, indeed persistence.js is one such example.

It’s good to see early implementations and prototypes for IndexDB and whilst the date for finalising this spec is unclear, I for one will be monitoring it’s progress closely and waiting with baited breath for it’s finalisation.

http://www.w3.org/TR/webdatabase/

http://www.w3.org/TR/IndexedDB/

http://hacks.mozilla.org/2010/06/beyond-html5-database-apis-and-the-road-to-indexeddb/

http://trac.webkit.org/export/70913/trunk/LayoutTests/storage/indexeddb/tutorial.html

Does HTML5 mean the end of the road for Gears, HTA and Flash?

March 10, 2011

Web standard HTML5 contains loads of great features, from video playback to drag-and-drop. But the best bit, and currently one of the least talked about elements, might be the capability to run apps offline.

The normal web experience is hindered by connectivity. Users can typically access web apps while they have a connection to the internet. Once offline, individuals lose access to email, calendar or notes. There are, of course, workarounds. Google Gears, for example, allows users to navigate compatible sites offline and synchronise when back online.

Microsoft HTML Applications (HTA), meanwhile, is a Microsoft Windows formalisation that provides a web-like experience offline. And Adobe Flash can also be run offline, allowing users to run Flash-based content.

Such workarounds are OK but they are also a bit messy. People want the same experience online or offline; they want to get hold of – and manipulate content – regardless of location and they don’t want to be hindered by platform specific technologies or plug-ins.

HTML5 provides that standardisation. Its two–pronged approach re-connects the user through an SQL-based interface for storing data locally, and an offline cache that helps ensure apps are always available (see further reading, below).

With regards to availability, HTML5’s application cache mechanism provides the ability to have a fall back page for rendering pages when offline. It also provides a means to update cache dynamically. The key, here, is client-side management.

And without wanting to bang my own drum too loudly, it is a rhythm I have been hinting at for a long, long time. I blogged two years ago (see further reading) about client-side management as a method for keeping data in the browser, rather than the server, and as means to reducing memory and processing requirements.

“If only it was supported as standard by the browser rather than having to use hidden fields,” I concluded – and now that day is fast approaching. HTML5 creates a standards-based method for creating local apps that run offline.

As mentioned earlier, HTML5 also provides the ability to store data locally through a client-side SQL database. A series of apps could potentially work with this database, providing a new level of accessibility and integration.

The total approach represents a huge step forwards for web development. It also signals that the end is nigh for proprietary workarounds like Gears, HTA and Flash. HTML5 is the future and web developers simply must get with the program.

Further reading:

http://www.w3.org/TR/offline-webapps/

http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/facing-up-to-it/2008/07/client-side-session-management/index.htm

The new legacy is HTML !

November 22, 2010

The legacy of past computing decisions is one of the biggest technology challenges facing businesses. What’s more, lessons from the past are not being heeded.

Let’s start with the most famous legacy code of them all – because if you’ve encountered COBOL, you’ve encountered legacy. Invented in 1959, the object-oriented language became a mainstay of business computing for the next four decades.

The legacy, however, quickly turned into a significant burden. Gartner reported that 80% of the world’s business ran on COBOL in 1997, with more than 200 billion lines of code in existence and an estimated 5 billion lines of new code produced annually (see further reading, below).

The reliance on that rate of production came home to roost towards the end of the last century, when language problems led to the panic associated to Y2K. The story since then has been one of decline. The continued move of business online has led to a clamour for new, sleeker and internet-ready programming languages.

First specified in 1990, HyperText Markup Language (HTML) became the predominant web development language. Its use ran alongside the development of open standards, such as JavaScript and the Cascading Style Sheets of CSS.

Such languages and styles helped to define the layout of the Web. But that is far from the end of the story. Online development in the era of HTML has become increasingly patchy, with more and more developers using varying styles of code.

Additional online tools, such as Silverlight and Flex, create further complexity. The result is that HTML, and an associated collection of standards and tools, are fast becoming the new legacy.

Just as in the case of COBOL, more and more lines of code are being produced. The disparate pace of online development is such that we will end up with reams of legacy HTML, JavaScript and CSS code.

Learn from history and get to grips with the problem now. Make sure you have proper documentation and standards. Select tools that are integrated with the rest of your business processes and which allow users to make the most of earlier development projects.

Think about how certain approaches – such as a mix of HTML/JavaScript and Ajax-server based technologies – will allow your business, and even your end-users, to use the same development techniques on desktop and mobile environments.

Also look to the future and take a look at HTML5, which is currently under development as the next major revision of the HTML standard, including features that previously required third-party plug-ins, such as Flash. Don’t stop there carry on with CSS3, Web Worker and WebFonts all new evolutions of current web technologies that will tomorrow be mainstream.

The end result should be the end of fragmented development and a legacy of useful web applications, rather than unusable and unidentifiable code.
Further reading:

http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2010/05/0528cobol-conference/


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Take your IT department forward by putting end user development at the front

November 19, 2010

Here’s a wake up call for the IT department – end-user computing will definitely become dominant; it’s just a matter of time.

 Proof comes in the form of modern business practices. Increasing numbers of executives are now saying that time to market is absolutely critical. A slow moving organisation is one that loses.

 For many firms, the ability to move quickly is underpinned by technology. The pace of change and centrality of IT to contemporary business means every organisation, whatever the sector, relies on technology to help maintain information flows and to help its employees deal with customers.

 Such reliance should be good news for the traditional technology team. But there’s a significant catch. The business wants to make changes and add products quickly. Technology, as the underpinning structure, should be set up to create speed.

 Unfortunately, this simply is not the case for many businesses.  The integral nature of IT to business processes means that line-of-business executives have to go through IT when they want to make changes.

 In many organisations, the traditional cycle of IT delivery is far too slow. One step forwards – in the form of the business’ recognition of the need to create a new product offering – is often several steps back for the IT department.

 Rather than being able to respond with agility to business need, IT development takes place across an elongated cycle, where each change needs to checked, re-checked and checked again. Businesses, if they are going to be agile, need to stop such lethargy.

 Focus remains on the IT department – and the focus has to be on technology because it is at the core of modern business practice. But smart executives are beginning to ask what can be done so that business change can swerve round the elongated cycle of IT delivery.

 For technology workers, such transformations might seem like a coup d’etat. But there is no need to be scared. IT workers that embrace the change and help the business move towards end-user computing will not be overthrown.

 Your role should be at the higher level, helping the businesses to understand how web interfaces – the new desktop – can be used to help executives avoid the traditional IT cycle of checking and testing.

 Employees want to be able to create instant changes to text that can help inform customers. They want to be able to manage data using their own business rules, creating drop down lists of crucial information.

 Permissions need to be granted and re-granted; workflow needs to be easily manageable, so that the business can use the web to drive agile processes. True agility comes in the form of end-user development.

 And the forward-thinking IT department will recognise it needs to help drive the end-user revolution, not hold it back.


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Fat client / Rich client / Mobile client

October 8, 2010

It’s a given that you’d better get online if you want to reach out to your customers. With more and more people having mobile access to the internet, firms need software that can help clients to interact on the move.

Step forward web-based rich internet applications (RIAs), which are online tools that have many of the features of their desktop counterparts. The use of RIAs date back a decade but their use continues to evolve.

As analyst Gartner concludes in respect to enterprise-level adoption (see further reading, below), RIA platforms are still in a dynamic and early adopter phase of market evolution. What is certain is that the RIA market is highly competitive.

 As well as the most distinct and prominent flavours, Apple pushes the use of its own software. Such divisions are inherent to the RIA market and competition is now taking a specific route.

 Most RIAs are splitting into two distinct groups: client technology, where a specific app – such as Silverlight or Flex – is installed into the client; or the server-based and Ajax route, where users only need a browser and no other client requirements.

 The distinction between the two approaches is such that Gartner considers Ajax and client-based RIAs as similar but separate technologies. Many firms choose to opt for the client approach – but for me, going with the client approach seems like a backwards step. It like we’re re-inventing the battle between desktop and browser apps, only this time both options are in the browser.

 First, users normally need to install a specific framework that executes the RIA before an application can launch. In Java-based alternatives like Ajax, there is no installation requirement – built-in browser functionality means required components are kept server-side.

 Second, the line between the desktop and the browser is blurring (see further reading). The browser is increasingly seen as the operating system, with individuals able to securely access social networking, music streaming and enterprise applications via the browser.

 Take note, however, that going for development via the browser is not a standalone decision. Businesses must also consider mobile development – and must avoid relying on a specific toolset for mobile development.

 Get the decision wrong and you can find your business in a similar platform-specific cul-de-sac, this time on the mobile rather than the desktop. By going with a mix of HTML/Javascript and Ajax-server based technologies, your business can use the same developers on desktop and mobile environments.

 HTML/Javascript and server-based Ajax is the route that will allow you to reach out to an increasingly mobile and browser-based audience. And in the future, it’s a combination that will help your business cope with the increasing range of screen sizes.

 Open source development frameworks like Rhodes and PhoneGap allow skilled web specialists to write once and deploy anywhere, creating mobile apps that have access to local device functions like camera, contacts and GPS.

 If you want to give your software the greatest reach, make sure your web-based developments take a direction that allows you to serve your savvy customers.

Further reading

 http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?doc_cd=164266

 http://www.computerworlduk.com/TOOLBOX/OPEN-SOURCE/blogs/index.cfm?entryid=2389&blogid=22&tsb=comment


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