You Know It Makes Sense to Respond

You Know It Makes Sense to Respond

When the grasslands of the marketplace are constantly shifting, organizations will only prosper if they can react - fast - to both internal and external events. That is why sense and respond (S&R) systems will inevitably - and probably in just a few short years - become commonplace.

Model Behaviour

An enterprise sense and respond system comprises a network of distributed S&R systems, each serving a specific role. "S&R applications share many of the behaviours of groups that respond collectively to their environments. You can think of a pride of lions as an S&R system consisting of multiple lions, each of which, in turn, is an S&R system," Chandy wrote in a recent research paper.

"Living things form models for the ways in which components of their environments behave: a zebra has an innate model of a lion's behaviour; cattle that graze near a railroad track learn a model of a train's behaviour. Similarly, S&R systems have models of their environments, which may be either specified by users or learned by the system. Machine learning algorithms help the systems learn critical conditions," he noted.

"Devices such as pocket PCs, PDAs and mobile phones, and technologies such as e-mail and instant messaging, generate increasing amounts of data," Chandy wrote with co-author Jonathan Lurie Carmona in an article entitled The Event Web: Sense and Respond to Critical Conditions. "Think of these data items as dots. To understand the changing big picture, you have to connect these dots as they arrive. Opportunities and threats are visible in the big picture, not in the individual dots. S&R systems collect dots, create the changing big picture, identify new opportunities and threats as the big picture changes, and respond by invoking applications and sending alerts to your devices.

"A great deal has been written about information utilities that provide information services just as electric utilities provide electricity. A valuable service is one that responds or helps you respond to threats and opportunities. The event Web (EW) is just such a utility. (Articles that appear later in this series will discuss the design and implementation of the EW)," they wrote.

Examples of S&R applications that can be built on top of the EW include those that would help with the following activities:

  • CEOs respond to possible violations of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance rules
  • operations managers respond when service level agreements are likely to be violated
  • information assurance officers respond to inappropriate patterns of access to sensitive information and applications
  • purchasing managers respond to purchasing and logistics opportunities
  • public health officials respond to the potential onset of a pandemic
  • financial traders take advantage of arbitrage opportunities
  • teenagers get alerts when favourite bands tour nearby locations (at times that are open on their calendars and when ticket prices are within their budgets).

Software architectures developed as compositional structures based on request/response calls, where components like procedures, objects, servers and services reply to synchronous requests with a response. Just like that stock, those components remain quiescent until they receive a request.

Chandy says that although SOA is the framework for systematic composition based on synchronous request/reply calls, event-driven applications are continuously active rather than remaining quiescent until they receive a request. In fact event-driven architectures deal with components and compositional structures that facilitate continuous monitoring and response.

Practical Barriers

Not every company will need event-driven applications: it all comes to a consideration of incremental benefits and costs.

CIOs should consider which existing business processes already respond to critical situations that might benefit from automation. They should also evaluate whether the responsibility for responding to some critical situations should live within a clearly identified group. Where it does, Chandy says, it can be much easier to prove business value. They should also ask whether the organization is meeting its current performance requirements and how much they might improve performance with IT support. Is this incremental improvement in performance valuable to the business activity of responding to critical conditions?

"You will find that developing an app is easier if the number of data sources is small, and there are a small number of rule templates that can be tailored and used by a large number of users," he says. "Keep in mind that a large part of the costs is the time required from business users. Yes, eventually this time pays off. But, getting the business user's time can be a hurdle.

"Building an effective event-driven application is mostly effort from businesspeople. Certainly building a sense and respond enterprise or an agile enterprise is very much a business issue rather than an IT issue," he says.

Chandy says it is one thing for CIOs to promote adoption of S&R, another to get the organization to take advantage of the technology. Unless the company is ready to exploit the IT system once it is in place, CIOs might as well not bother. The US government's dismal response to hurricane Katrina was not due to lack of technology, but to organization failures, he says. "Agencies in the government had information, IT was working okay, but the organization couldn't respond in a timely fashion. This is not primarily a technology problem, this is primarily a management and organizational problem.

"And that is a considerable hurdle. If you're used to doing things one way and you have to start doing things in a much more proactive way, it might be difficult. You won't get much out of your sense and respond technology unless you can achieve that change in culture," he says. There is no point spending a lot of money to make your technology ahead of your organization's ability to adapt to it.

He warns CIOs to beware the hype. Vendors are selling SOA as if it were the answer to any CIO's prayers, and hype is just as likely to dog efforts to understand the benefits and limits of EDA, he says.

"I think they can both be problems: dealing with organizational changes that are required and dealing with the hype, which is why we are moving gradually over the next few years," he says.

"I think it will take [CIOs] at least two more years to digest service-oriented architectures, and plan for sense and respond and then carefully evaluate the return on investment."

For now, Chandy advises CIOs to hasten their efforts to gather knowledge about S&R. Go to conferences and read plenty of material first. CIOs should evaluate their organizations, identify the S&R applications that can add value to their organizations and decide if their organizations and management are ready to adapt to the new technology. Then they can evaluate the components in the enterprise stack that they already have that may be enough for the applications, carry out a careful cost-benefit analysis and only then consider buying new S&R-specific products, he advises.

Come 2008 or so, by which time Chandy fully expects Gartner and other organizations to be holding event-driven architecture conferences, the time may be right to make your move. Doing so will just be plain good sense, he says.

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