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Coping with Complexity

While hardware and software now cost less, companies pay a big price -- literally and metaphorically -- to hook it all together. Maybe they should rearchitect.

While Moore’s Law and fierce competition among vendors virtually guarantee that your IT dollar will continuously gain in purchasing power, don’t let the good deals blind you to an underlying truth: the complexity of what you’re buying may be no bargain at all. In a recent study of more than 20 large enterprises, Boston Consulting Group found that as time went on and these large companies acquired an expanding arsenal of IT, far from gaining economies of scale they were in fact left with “diseconomies of complexity.” Think of it as scope creep on a macro level, as a glut of homegrown and packaged software, hardware, network capacity, and sundry other aspects of IT become ever more costly to maintain, impede new projects, and hamstring companies’ efforts to respond to changes in the business climate.

This complexity crisis is a key selling point for vendors of utility computing (see “The Meter System,” Summer), and in fact most companies in the IT world now emphasize simplification as a selling point. But as IT is called upon to build new applications and extend old ones to the Web, support ever-shifting business strategies, outsource this process or that, accommodate mergers and acquisitions, meet regulatory burdens, and, of course, work faster within tighter budgets, companies may not be able to spend their way toward a brighter future. New thinking may be called for, a new way to frame IT strategy that provides a handle on complexity while improving ROI and better aligning IT activities with the enterprise as a whole.

That, at least, is the argument made by proponents of service-oriented architecture, or SOA. While the term underscores the IT industry’s continuing inability to concoct catchy phrases, don’t let its clunkiness lead you to believe that it can be left solely to the IT department. SOA promises a more momentous shift in business technology than client/server or even Web-based computing. “This is a significant and big movement within IT,” claims Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at research firm ZapThink. “This is the maturing of an industry, with competitors agreeing on some important standards that will help them all accommodate each other.” Even Microsoft, he points out, is throwing its weight behind the standards that make SOA possible.

Traditionally architected IT systems tightly intertwine so many aspects of the business processes they automate that making even simple changes to some facet of the operation is enormously difficult. Similarly, it’s difficult to get several systems — each originally installed, potentially, by a different business unit pursuing its own tactical goals, with no coordinated planning — to share their data or cooperate in executing complex business transactions. Either a company springs for a costly integration project or its employees cope by opening different applications on the same crowded PC screens and flipping back and forth between them. There are some clever new workarounds (see “You Make Me Feel Young Again“), but while they can help extend the life of older applications, they can’t address the larger risk of an entire IT system collapsing under its own weight.

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