CoIT: another architectural disaster unfolds?

Twitter-correspondent Craig Hepburn posted a Tweet this morning pointing to Dion Hinchcliffe‘s excellent ZDNet article, ‘CoIT: how an accidental future is becoming reality‘, about the current rise and rise of ‘consumer IT’ or ‘cooperative IT’:

It’s a story as old as the IT department: New technology arrives in the market, it makes some type of work easier to accomplish, the business asks for it, and IT reacts and delivers it. Not always however, and usually somewhat slowly. It was this way with PCs, it was this way with the Internet, and now IT is faced with what is turning out to be a veritable perfect storm of technology and social change. …

Today’s highly mobile, social cloud has set everyone’s expectations for how easy, powerful, and simple IT can be. The genie will never be put back into the bottle.

For once I’m going to stand firmly on the side of the IT-folks on this one – because no matter how wonderful this looks right now, this is not good news at all. Looking at this with a futurist’s eye, I’m wondering how long it will take before we wish we could put the genie back into the bottle… because what I’m seeing here is a full-on disaster-in-the-making. Or rather, a double disaster-in-the-making, given how much this will interact with the ongoing disaster that is ‘cloud-computing’…

One of the first lessons any futurist learns is to look back at history, to seek out any equivalent occurrences in the past. And the blunt fact is that we’ve been here before… not just once, but several times already. Each time that we came back to the same place – if perhaps from a slightly different direction – it’s clear that the fundamental lessons were not learned, in fact were wilfully ignored; and each time it took a lot of effort, a lot of skill, and a lot discipline, to tidy up the mess – just in time for the next batch of overly-excited idiots to trash the place all over again. This is the dirty end of Gartner’s ‘hype-cycle’: someone has to tidy up the mess. And yes, “it’s a story as old as the IT department”, because in every case so far, that ‘someone’ has been the much-derided IT department – and also enterprise-architecture, in its broader sense, beyond IT alone.

Go back sixty years or so, to the first beginnings of mainframes and ‘big computing’. Watch the hype-cycle at work: slow adoption, then a huge take-off in ‘data-processing’ (we didn’t get round to calling it IT until quite a bit later). It will solve every business problem! Control the world! Unlimited information on tap, right here, right now! Except it wasn’t quite as simple as that… turns out it was a lot of work to get standards happening (COBOL, the IBM-360 architecture, and so on), and then all the boring stuff about requirements, governance, maintenance, data-cleansing, service-management…

Twenty years later, it’s the mini-computer boom. It will solve every business problem! Now even medium-sized businesses can control the world! Unlimited information on tap, right here, right now! Except that it wasn’t quite as simple as that… turns out it was a lot of work to get standards happening (the C language, the Digital PDP-series architecture, and so on), and then all the boring stuff about requirements, governance, maintenance, data-cleansing, service-management…

Ten years later, we get the microcomputer revolution. It will solve every business problem! Now you too can control the world, right here on your desktop! Unlimited information on tap, right here, right now! Except it wasn’t quite as simple as that… turns out it was a lot of work to get standards happening (disk-formats, file-formats, data-architectures, the IBM-PC architecture, and so on), and then all the boring stuff about requirements, maintenance, data-cleansing, service-management…

Yup, you’ll be seeing the pattern here. The exact same sequence applied to the rise of the internet ten years later, the web five years after that (with a merry little hiatus called the Dot.Com.Bomb), the rise of cloud over the past few years, and now the rise of Hinchcliffe’s mobile IT or ‘CoIT’. In every case, there’s the same wild hype, the initial push from outside the IT-department (as ‘shadow IT’) which gets the basic idea going to point where it’s usable.

(And to be fair, if that push hadn’t happened, those new developments would probably never have been usable: as Hinchcliffe implies, it’s actually quite rare that innovations arises from within the IT department itself. Because that isn’t it’s job: IT’s real job, unfortunately, is to tidy up the mess that will inevitably follow…)

In every case we see the same exuberance… then the slowly-dawning awareness that it isn’t quite as simple as that. It turns out that there’s a lot of work that’s needed in order to get standards happening – otherwise the new ‘revolution’ turns out to be something that can’t be shared, which means that the whole thing fizzles out quite quickly because we need that sharing to happen. We need clear standards for hardware, software, data-architectures, information-architectures, interchange protocols and much more besides. We need distinct disciplines around requirements, governance, maintenance, data-cleansing, quality-management, service-management and a whole swathe of other areas. And all of those, it’s now clear, need to allow for customisation, agility, security, versatility, adaptability, resilience and the like – none of which are easy to balance with conventional ‘control’-style disciplines.

So here I am, looking at the rise of Hinchcliffe’s ‘CoIT’ – particularly cloud-computing and mobile-apps. And what I’m seeing is an architectural disaster waiting to happen, if not unfolding right before our eyes:

  • security – where is it? does it exist at all? (I’ve seen lots of hype and promises, but not much reality as yet)
  • file-formats – half the iPad apps I’ve seen seem to embed their data actually within the app itself – they don’t even have a file-format other than perhaps plain-text or unstructured PDF
  • interchange-formats -if they have a file-format at all,  most of the apps seem to rely on unpublished proprietary file-structures with no means to enable exchange between different apps, whilst cloud-providers will often deliberately make it difficult to exchange, so as to enforce ‘lock-in’
  • escrow – information-lifetimes range between seconds and decades – yet no-one seems to be thinking beyond a year or more at most, and no-one at all seems to be planning for what happens when a cloud-provider or app-provider goes bust – which they will, often (over the long-term at least), and often very expensively
  • system-standards – where are they? do they exist at all? – we seem to back in the worst days of early microcomputing, where just about every man-and-his-dog-in-a-garage could and did create an entirely different architecture for everything, often intentionally incompatible with everything else

I could go on… and on… and on… there’s no shortage of other nightmare-level architectural risk-factors that aren’t being addressed at all. Other than by the much-maligned IT-department, that is (who unfortunately tend to be able to see only the IT-related risks, which represent only a relatively small proportion of the whole); or by the few enterprise-architects who actually do think about whole-of-enterprise scope (and who are mostly derided, by the hype-merchants and their ilk, as doomsayers who’ve lost the plot). Not funny… Oh well…

Yes, it’s true that the excitement (or the oft-forlorn hope that it will finally be better this time?) is what gets people going to create new ideas; so yes, the exuberance does matter. Hence, in turn, I suppose, the hype does matter too. And safe-fail experiments are also always a good idea, because they show us where things will break but without causing much damage in the process. ‘Safe-fail’ can get quite extreme, too: for example, think of the buildings in a fireworks-factory, with very solid walls, very lightweight roofs – because when you know there’s a high risk that things can go badly wrong, you can indeed design for that fact. Yet there are also many types of structures that we can’t allow to fail: anyone who’s lived through a major earthquake or major storm-event will know that fact firsthand… Architecturally we need to be able to tell the difference between those two extremes, and design accordingly.

Yet that’s exactly what’s not happening here with cloud or CoIT: architecture of any valid kind, it seems, has all but been abandoned in the usual wild rush towards The Next Best Thing… So might it not be wise to take a brief pause for thought at this point, before we rush headlong into yet another insanely-expensive IT-disaster? Or is that too much to ask of anyone whilst the hype is in full flow?

3 Comments on “CoIT: another architectural disaster unfolds?

  1. It depends (though I do see bumps in the road).

    What is the enterprise? It’s not cloud computing…its the community who uses all the new technologies (cloud computing and mobile apps).

    I will admit now that I haven’t read the article yet.

  2. Tom, great article.

    you put a quite similar argument forward to one I made at the 2009 Symposium on EA in Higher Ed in Auckland.

    Some thoughts from that work that extend yours…

    Technology is a precondition the change. The actual mechanism of change is how people (and societies at all levels) interact with and are effected by information – the things (all kinds of things) from their worlds that can be represented and worked with through the technology.

    So the innovations that led to mini-computers led to the increasing importance of information processing based on the technology’s ability to capture and model transactions (atomistic events). It really did change the nature of work and organisations and made a new kind of information available.

    It wasn’t really the advent of PCs that changed things. If the information about the world that could be stored in them and used had not changed radically they would have simply replaced the niche occupied by terminals. But they allowed people to simulate sheets of paper and type writers. And spreadsheets – which were existed prior to software and were done on very large sheets of paper. Later came sound files, photographs, building designs, industrial machinery, complex electronics (like audio mixing decks) and a thousand other things that are now simulated in software.

    In this wave computers became personal productivity tools. The changes to how personal productivity expressed itself in our lives when assisted by the new ‘virtual’ things PCs could provide is what changed our jobs, our professions and be extension our lives.

    The internet started out as an extension of publication and communications models that already existed. But (in this case much more slowly that in previous transformations) our activity on the internet started to capture large amounts of information that previously wasn’t subject to computation – social information, information about opinions, subjective value, and what we might call (tentatively) knowledge.

    There are intersecting trends (consumerisation for example). But mobile computing, ubiquitous data, web 2.0 and so on are all converging to create a new domain of information – information that allows us to model and manipulate in computers new and extremely complex things. Once again this will transform organisations. But this time maybe even whole societies.

    I don’t see this as an impending disaster. Our world is changing again. As a strategic profession EAs need to get their heads around this. We are leaving the era of ‘information processing’ and ‘ICT’ and entering the era of social computing and Knowledge Technology.

    • Pat – yes, the enterprise is the community. It’s what happens when the community loses its mind and memory that worries me… and in a quite literal sense, that’s what’s at risk here.

      Ric – strongly agree that “mobile computing, ubiquitous data, web 2.0 and so on” are not in themselves an impending disaster. Same applies to their initial impact on organisations and “maybe even whole communities” – in general I see those impacts as desirable, if certainly not something we can ‘control’.

      What does worry me is what happens next. As an EA I’ve spent many months at clients tracking down all those small private-to-a-workgroup spreadsheets and databases and log-files and the like that were a) business-critical and b) unmaintained, undocumented, not backed up, inherently fragile [such as trying to use Access as a multi-user database], unregistered, and in many other ways a real business risk. When someone changed jobs, or a single hard-drive failed, or a sysadmin triggered an automated application-upgrade, or any other of a myriad of seeming-trivial events, that business-unit would literally lose that part of its mind – and an entire business-process, affecting an entire cross-functional workstream, would grind to a halt until someone could work out what had gone missing and how to set up yet another kludged workaround.

      When the business-application is non-critical, kludges usually don’t matter: it’s how people learn, it helps get things done, and it’s exactly what ‘shadow-IT’ is for. The new mobile technologies and the like are brilliant for this – just as spreadsheets and single-user databases were (and still are). Everything’s fine as long as they’re essentially used in the same way as Lego bricks or a Meccano set or the like – a ‘serious toy’ that can be used to knock out a quick prototype to test out an idea, or perhaps even to keep around as a vaguely-useful tool and talking-point. And as long as they’re used for that kind of purpose, it shouldn’t matter much when they do fail – especially if we can use that failure as a way to learn what to do differently next time. In other words, we accept failure as part of the deal – it’s ‘safe-fail’.

      But don’t try to use a ‘serious toy’ for anything that’s business-critical. It’s not inherently wrong, but it’s simply not ‘fit for purpose’: they’re not robust enough, resilient enough, agile enough, secure enough, and so on – which means that as a system we cannot set them up to ‘safe-fail’ in such a context. Sure, you could use Lego to build a house (it’s been done), or Meccano to build a bridge (that’s been done, too), but the effectiveness of doing so is questionable at best, especially over the longer term.

      It’s the ‘-ilities’ that usually matter most in architecture. The functional requirements for a system are usually much the same at any scope or scale, but the qualitative or so-called ‘non-functional’ requirements are what will usually make or break the system in practice. Building an IT system that can handle half a dozen strictly-sequential requests in half an hour or even half a minute is relatively trivial; building one that can handle thousands or even millions of parallel, interleaving, incomplete requests every second is not trivial at all; and yet the functional requirements are essentially the same. That’s the difference between a ‘serious-toy’ prototype, and serious engineering with serious architecture and serious service-management and support behind it.

      What we have right now in mobile,computing, ubiquitous-information and cloud is a whole bunch of serious-toys desperately pretending to be more than they are, and – more worryingly – being sold and used as if they’re more than they are. Sure, the function is there – but that’s easy. It always is. Getting them beyond that ‘serious toy’ stage is not easy – and because it’s hard work to get there, it hacks into the short-term profits, too, so it’s not exactly popular amongst the money-obsessed.

      So have here all the ingredients for a ‘perfect storm’: more and more of individual people’s lives and livelihoods being placed onto platforms that are inherently unstable and unsustainable, because little or none of the work to make them stable and sustainable is as yet in place or even in progress. If you’re not already seriously worried about what will happen when large chunks of our society literally lose their collective mind and memory through the failures of these kludged-together toys, you’re not thinking hard enough about the architecture of the enterprise… 😐

      The lessons of history are plain to see, and it’s also plain to see that the level of unaddressed risk has been raised each time, with even the earliest-period risks still not fully addressed even now. You Have Been Warned?

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