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TLC to heal the IT/business rift

by Olivier Moratin & Christopher Warner
October 11th, 2004

Let's put it bluntly — the relationship between IT and business is often on the rocks. If these two partners were to go through a therapy session, the counselor would probably give them the most mundane advice: to communicate more often and listen better. But how?

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By surrounding web services with a strong integration framework, metadata management and a semantics approach, business and IT can have a more productive and healthier relationship.

Olivier Moratin is product marketing manager and Christopher Warner is technical marketing manager at mainframe and XML integration vendor Software AG, which offers a range of XML business integration products for loosely coupled access to enterprise information, services and legacy resources.

Glossary terms: loose coupling, composite application, SOA, ESB, XSLT, lookup tool

The business-IT relationship counselor would point out that IT has been too focused on its own needs, maintaining and patching the 'accidental architecture' left behind by two decades of investments in disparate systems and integration silos. Busy connecting applications and learning hundreds of APIs, it has not been paying attention to delivering the kind of love (ie, information) business users want. And the step-by-step journey to this improved relationship with business is one that is based on 'total loose coupling' or TLC.

Taking the first steps
Web services represent the first step toward total loose coupling and a healthier IT/business relationship. What do we mean by "loosely coupled"? Perhaps a quick example might help. You likely make deposits and withdrawals from your bank through an ATM machine. But you know very little about the many sophisticated processes your bank employs to make your money accessible and secure. In this respect, you are "loosely coupled" to your bank. Similarly, in the IT world, web services provide a standard interface that hides the implementation details of underlying software systems, drastically limiting the impact of change and other dependencies. Loose coupling, defined abstractly, is the characteristic of such a system to offer its functions without requiring its clients to have knowledge of its internal procedures.

How does this help the IT/business relationship? Through their design principles, web services have the power to bring technology islands — including the mainframe — and integration silos into composite applications and integrated data. Because of this far-reaching capability, web services also encourage a common vision between business and IT resources of the data available across the organization. In other words, an effective web services strategy asks that IT and business work more closely together. As our counselor would likely say, "the first step to a better relationship is talking."

Need for a framework
Although we praise web services for enabling both tactical and strategic approaches through their loosely-coupled and standard interfaces, they alone cannot deliver real business value and repair the IT/business relationship. Some IT departments start their SOA by enabling their systems for SOAP so teams can work more independently. It's a great first step. But loosely coupled interfaces integrated with 'spaghetti code' won't bring business agility. Furthermore, implementing a service-oriented architecture without understanding the location and usage of data will contradict the purpose of SOA. In order to guarantee rapid and reliable response to business initiatives, IT must be able to measure how granular changes occurring in applications impact the web services and composite applications that span the organization.

Consequently, the second requirement and logical next step of totally loosely coupled enterprises is to implement the necessary web services integration and metadata management frameworks. Software infrastructures such as an Enterprise Service Bus can help with this requirement by addressing the need to orchestrate services in a flexible manner. More precisely, the ESB allows for rapid implementation and change through distributed architecture, supports intelligent routing based on XPath, and transformation of messages using XSLT. In addition, metadata modeling and management tools have been available for many years, and new standards such as CWG and OWL are quickly catching on.

Let's imagine that business users and enterprise architects have successfully implemented valuable and reusable web services and have surrounded them with the aforementioned management infrastructure. Are they done? Have they reached total loose coupling 'nirvana' and created enough flexibility to mend their relationship? Almost. The missing item: semantics.

Mutual understanding
Business users and executives need information, not just data. Information is defined as transformed data that can be understood, analyzed and acted on in a specific context. Business users express their information need according to their specific role within the organization. For instance, two employees from different units of a transportation company have different meanings for the term 'shipment'. While the logistics expert associates a shipment to 'a trailer' the sales representative considers a shipment as 'an order'. Again, IT isn't well equipped to provide this kind of productive, meaningful and targeted information. And when the information is provided, it tends to be very specific and departmental — which has unfortunately created integration silos.

Through the addition of a 'semantic layer', service-oriented architecture enables a real-time information delivery framework that considers the diversity of information needs and greatly increases the benefits provided by the web services integration framework. In this last step to total loose coupling, business terms from all data-generating systems are organized into a single organizational dictionary and linked to existing metadata from data sources and web services. Business terms themselves may then be exposed as web services and real information can be retrieved and delivered on demand. This information can be used by other web services, by applications such as business process management (BPM), or even by external partners.

Using this approach, access to vital information is not disrupted by change occurring in web services or systems holding data. New web services can be linked to business terms and data sources can be modified without the end-users' knowing of those changes. As such, business users gain greater independence. Nevertheless, business and IT have to collaborate frequently to define business terms, and understand processes and users across the entire organization.

By enabling total loose coupling within the enterprise — surrounding web services with a strong integration framework, metadata management and a semantics approach — business and IT can have a more productive and healthier relationship. Or, as your counselor might say, “This is the beginning of a beautiful future.”

This article was incorrectly attributed to JP Morgenthal when originally published. The text has been updated October 12th to show the correct authors' names.

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