At a recent InTEP session, IS executives met to discuss the difficulties of implementing an appropriate architecture to harness the Internet. The group agreed that as soon as anyone in IT mentioned the word architecture it engendered glazed looks and general disinterest among their business counterparts. All these people wanted to talk about were e-business opportunities. They had no interest in the technical challenges of getting there.
I can only assume that most of these people have never renovated a house. My wife and I have sat many tests in our 15 years together; none as arduous as the six years we spent renovating a dilapidated semi-detached house. In retrospect it is easy to see where we went wrong: we overlooked the need for an architect. We made decisions based on our immediate needs. The result was a house that barely suited the needs of two adults with no children which became hopelessly inadequate once our children reached primary school.
The same is true of business. How does IS establish the right framework on which to build for e-commerce? Take for example the issue of scalability. One InTEP member with a successful B2B site found his systems went from handling the enquiries of several hundred internal customers to processing the requests of over 10,000 external clients. Should the system been built to handle this workload from the outset? In housing terms it's the decision to build five bedrooms instead of two. As my wife and I discovered, if you first build two bedrooms and then opt to add on further bedrooms, the overall expense is considerably more. In IT this is manifested in a need to rapidly replace servers and network infrastructure. Frustratingly for IS, the business perceives these upgrades as IS incompetence.
The truth is that e-commerce represents uncharted waters. There is seldom evidence of how big the demand will be for an online site. Sales and marketing people can't predict how important a Web presence will be to overall sales. No one can show hard or fast figures for losses if the site is "down" for hours, days or weeks.
IS is very much caught between a rock and a hard place when it plans the architecture on which to build an e-commerce site. The three toughest components that the architecture needs to address are capacity planning, responsiveness and resiliency. If CIOs are optimistic they run the risk of asking business for a lot of money which may be hard to justify if the Web site generates little profit. If CIOs are pessimistic and architect a bare bones environment, they risk leaving the business exposed should the e-commerce initiative takes off.
Some of the InTEP members hoped that the discussion might provide an e-commerce implementation checklist. However, those with the most experience in this area felt that since e-business was still in its infancy this was an unrealistic aspiration. Instead, they kept coming back to the need for someone to educate the business on the role of a systems architecture. Unfortunately, like my family, those executives keen to renovate their business will probably only begin to appreciate the true value of an architect when they encounter the limitations of their redevelopment selections.
Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia