In the new era of short-term web services projects, relationships are changing between systems integrators (SIs) and their customers.
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|Standards-based integration no longer requires specialist skills, so systems integrators are having to prove their worth to customers in new ways:|
- Big-ticket web services projects are a rarity
- Customers look for instant payback
- Top-tier SIs emphasize process management skills
- Smaller specialists adopt agile development techniques
Glossary terms: SOA, SI, agile development, business process, EAI, lookup tool
One major financial services company recently set itself the aggressive timeline of 90 days to implement a redesign of its entire enterprise architecture. The idea was to put Visual Studio plug-ins on its back-end systems and create a web services abstraction layer that, at a stroke, would insulate developers from everything but building services. It had 80 people working on the project internally but still had to draft in systems integrator partner CSC to provide the extra resource needed for such an intensive initiative.
"Organizations are pretty tight on their IT resource these days. It's rare they have a whole team sitting around waiting for a project to work on," says CSC partner Sean Rhodey. "We're typically called in because we have people available and we can provide full works or mentoring services and add value through knowledge transfer."
The big SIs are busy gearing up resources for such projects, training staff and, in many cases, setting up separate web services divisions. But big-bang projects like the example above are a rarity in today's cash-strapped IT departments and the implications for the major SIs are serious.
Despite the fact that the length and cost of enterprise application implementation projects have fallen steadily in recent years, many SIs are still more accustomed to multi-million dollar, multi-year engagements with a client than the speedy toe-in-the-water, suck-it-and-see style of most web services projects. With the focus falling on smaller, bite-sized projects, customers can now force SIs to pitch each step of the way for the new work.
"The SI wants to be able to implement subsequent projects. Instead of a $1m project to bid on, he is bidding on ten to fifteen $60k projects and needs to win them all," says IDC analyst Sophie Mayo. For SIs, this means a dramatic change in the dynamics of their business; for their customers, it amounts to a fundamental shift in the balance of power and Mayo recommends they make the most of it. "My advice to end-users is to be involved in the decision making process with a team of internal people at various levels in the project and request ROI metrics/benchmarks."
SIs, of course, acknowledge the economic realities that have led their customers to embrace the step-by-step approach. "Where we see resistance is in the area of cost reduction," says Kerrie Holley, an IBM Global Services distinguished engineer. "It is more difficult where you are trying to rationalize and fund a project through cost savings. These companies need to move incrementally to an SOA there's not a lot of business value in the move to SOA itself, so they need to gain the business value chunk by chunk."
Demonstrating short-term returns requires a change of tack from SIs, who have traditionally rolled into companies on the consultancy high ground before scoping out vast projects that they then go on to deliver. Although this background gives them the expertise and vision to help companies move on from simple internal pilot projects to embrace complex full-scale deployments, it also carries with it all the baggage of a culture of long-term engagement. Perhaps that explains why Forrester Research, when it contacted 21 European SIs late last year, found that only nine of them could demonstrate a web services strategy and provide examples of live projects. The finding sounds warning bells for users keen to make the most of the web services revolution.
What's on offer
If some integrators are looking stretched, size and credibility would seem to favor the established market leaders. In a report entitled Web services: 14 IT services companies en route to innovative implementations, profiles and analysis
, IDC names several of the top-tier integrators as "comprehensives" in web services, including IBM, Accenture, EDS, Deloitte Consulting, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Bearing Point (the former KPMG Consulting) and CSC.
IBM Global Services Business Consulting Services is rated overall market leader in web services projects by both Forrester and IDC. But although IBM's ranking is helped both by its involvement in standards-setting at industry bodies OASIS, W3C and WS-I, and by its intellectual capital investment as part of its e-business-on-demand strategies, the ultimate arbiter is business volumes. In IBM's case they are eloquent. Its $100m web services revenues to date come from a relatively small number of big-ticket engagements some 40+ projects in all, involving around 4,200 staff in total, which works out at around 100 staff per project and an average price ticket of more than $2 million each. It's evident the big names are scooping whatever big-ticket projects the market can afford.
While not being able to call on the resources that IBM has in store, smaller rivals play in the same league. Still no minnow with 20-30 projects to its name, CSC aims to get its customers thinking ahead to the business process ramifications of moving to SOA. This is a field where it can claim a technology leadership position, with its CTO Howard Smith, serving as joint chairman of industry body BPMI.org.
"There's a greater emphasis on upfront project planning and less on execution," says CSC's Rhodey. "Typically the place [customers would] get the biggest gain is in integration. So [because integration is now a given] we have to ensure clients aren't worrying about the plumbing but are instead focusing on business processes."
Applying the 80:20 rule, Rhodey argues that web services provide 80 percent of the promise of EAI the plumbing, routing and standardization benefits but without the management and workflow. Providing the all-important extra 20 percent is where the SI can prove its worth in CSC's case applying its "plan build and manage" mantra.
Missing the point?
But could the more established SIs be missing the point when it comes to web services environments? With their emphasis on vision, on management and on size and scale, they may be neglecting the incremental approach which, instead of aiming to get the entire infrastructure right first time, actually sets out to learn from its failures.
Kleiner Perkins tech guru financier Vinod Khosla spelt out his vision for iterative specification at December's Real-Time Enterprise conference: "I suggest planning on systems that are always wrong but can be changed very rapidly, that are adaptive. Get something running in 90 days, users try it, they tell you what's wrong, you can easily change it. Don't make it a massive transformation for the company. Get into a world of rapid modification as an architecture.
"Do a thousand 90-day projects as opposed to one three-year project. Each one, if you make a mistake, is not a large mistake because you haven't invested a lot into it." He quoted one company as an example that had set up more than two hundred of these 90-day IT projects.
In this new era of iterative development, smaller SIs may have the high ground. Chicago-based Thoughtworks, which specialises in custom development of core systems for large clients, focuses on "agile development", a method of software design which is well suited for rapidly evolving, bite-sized projects. "It's most suited to environments where there are changing requirements, and the specifications are not fixed up front," explains technology principal Richard McLaren. "It's iterative and adapts well to prioritizing changing requirements. We use web services tools to develop around that structure."
Agile development covers methods such as extreme programming (XP), which emphasises collaboration and differs from traditional programming in taking an iterative approach to projects. The aim is to develop working software at the end of each iteration typically each lasts only two weeks on the way to a full-scale rollout. Thoughtworks gives the example of North American energy company Transcanada, where in a project labeled SPINE (Service Provider Infrastructure Network Environment), it worked with Sun to establish a design for a fully functional web service, and to create a proof-of-concept prototype based on Sun's Open Net Environment (Sun ONE).
McLaren is keen to stress that ThoughtWorks is totally focused on software delivery rather than strategic planning. "As an organization we're long on detailed delivery experience and short on consultancy. Where it's appropriate we'll extrapolate our experience [to help clients understand the technology] but it's not a strategy of ours," he says. Such a refreshing take in a befuddled technology world may yet represent the best bet for SIs seeking to prosper with web services.
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