Building a foundation for Web services

Web services have emerged as one of the leading enterprise technologies allowing companies to enhance their relationships with suppliers, clients and business partners by sharing Web-based applications. In fact, almost all of the North American enterprises that were recently surveyed on Web services by Gartner Dataquest confirmed that they currently use some form of Web services or plan to do so within the next 12 months.

Companies can leverage these benefits by incorporating Web services fully into their enterprise IT architecture, which defines the different components that make up the overall information system at the core of any successful modern business strategy. With Web services technology, business applications, services and information can be completely decentralized and distributed over the Internet to enable access from a wide variety of communications devices.

By providing proper governance through the enterprise IT architecture, CIOs will be able to establish a solid foundation for Web services that can provide far more control and flexibility for end users. Current IT assets can be factored into the deployment of future applications and previously incompatible technology can be integrated to enable departmental systems to work together in new ways without introducing significant changes to the existing infrastructure.

Integrating disparate networks, applications and computers may be a necessary step in order to form the proper infrastructure foundation that allows companies to improve their business metrics, including increased revenues and heightened customer satisfaction. However, before deciding whether to address the silos of different IT systems that exist within an organization, CIOs need to evaluate the state of their organizational environment and culture to determine whether it’s an appropriate time to initiate reorganization.

A well thought out Web services architecture promotes innovation and keeps operational overhead down, resulting in dramatic output gains.

Anticipating Cultural Changes

To design a Web services system that is sustainable and compatible with future technology, CIOs should not only be well versed in the business and technology but must also have the foresight to anticipate possible cultural changes. By looking beyond the product and applications lifecycle, executives will be able to consider factors that may motivate future business decisions and contemplate how to best execute them.

Given this, it is still important when planning the IT architecture to avoid locking into one path that will limit the company’s future. With the growth of e-commerce, the flexibility of an IT infrastructure should be maintained in order to adapt to the rapid changes in Web services technology. These days, the ‘e’ in e-commerce stands for evolutionary.

To ensure the successful implementation and execution of Web services projects, companies need to consider a number of factors when mapping the relationship between their core business objectives, their customers’ requirements, and their IT architecture.

Integrating Existing Applications

While integrating existing applications and processes is the most common activity within Web services projects, it often poses challenges during the planning process. Conflicts can arise whenever old meets new, and this is especially true in the case of integrating the latest self-contained, modular applications with existing applications that do not speak the same language.

User dissatisfaction with customer-facing applications often stems from having back-end manual processes inject errors independently from an efficient front-end process. For example, an on-line customer order system that does not connect to the purchasing system can be an inefficient use of time and resources.

To mitigate problems, CIOs should establish a core team of seasoned architects that will have direct input into the Web services strategy, and ensure that developers with legacy experience keep their skills current and clearly understand the direction the enterprise is taking. By providing IT personnel with appropriate training, or partnering with an experienced technology services provider, companies will not only ensure application functionality, but will also be able to meet their business value objectives while maintaining high customer satisfaction.

Identifying mission-critical applications and protecting every interconnecting system against downtime is key to achieving a successful integration. An important point in the development of any customer-facing framework is determining what are the differentiators and how will the customer benefit from this service. By thinking in terms of the customer experience, CIOs will become significant contributors to the bottom line.

The old formula DV x Q = W (Distinctive Value x Quantity = Wealth) should be top of mind in these early developmental stages.

Security

Security is always a critical factor to consider when using the Web to conduct transactions within an organization. The potential for risk increases when Web portals are used to provide employees and trading partners with access to critical business information and services.

To protect internal information as well as that of clients and employees, companies should apply a security protocol that will determine who gets access to what, why, when, how and how often. However, companies must also address the little known or unknown bugs, holes and undocumented code vulnerabilities which often cause the biggest problems.

The success or failure of a Web services project hinges on the proper use of enterprise IT architecture principles when considering the security issues involved. Even after the interdependencies, which threaten the organization, have been mapped out and repeatedly tested, it is important to have an independent set of eyes test it as well.

Content Management

To achieve the business goals of an organization, content managers should understand how Web services fit into the enterprise IT architecture to make sure data is relevant, current and flowing to the correct individuals.

As employees will come to rely more on Web services to provide data they need in order to facilitate decisions, the consideration for data taxonomy will become vital.

While content is only data in its raw form, once organized it becomes information that can be manipulated with purpose to transform to knowledge. Thought process, retrieval skills and learning styles all play a part in how content is managed and organized. Web services has made it possible to put all of an organization’s resources on the Web but it is important to control this in order to minimize the risk of unauthorized access to applications and information.

Systems Management

Web services can be used to establish systems interconnect points to serve customers and suppliers in far more intimate and relationship-building ways. This is achieved in part through open standards such as XML, UDDI, and SOAP to make various systems accessible and loosely coupled to interchange massive amounts of data that result in a more complex system.

But, there is a great deal of interconnect that can be achieved through the dedication of your legacy staff. To maintain this multi-faceted environment, CIOs need to take a holistic view that will help them avoid damaging one part of the system while enhancing another. In order for such a complex system to function smoothly, it is not uncommon to see a dozen application languages and one hundred discreet skill sets to support a medium-sized business. This does not mean go out and hire an army – just manage existing resources. Managing this process through the framework of an enterprise IT architecture will allow CIOs to see the big picture.

Portals

Portals have rapidly emerged as the largest application for Web services and the interface of choice for accessing enterprise-wide heterogeneous data and applications. Mapping the relationship between the technology and the business processes will make portals more accessible to internal users, customers and trading partners.

When portals are implemented without careful consideration of the enterprise IT architecture, important issues like performance, scalability, security and transactional interoperability can fall through the cracks.

Enterprise IT architecture puts organizational plans, business processes, systems, technology infrastructure and data analysis into context. To ensure the environment is scaleable and robust enough to handle future business challenges, enterprise IT architecture needs to be properly designed.

Once CIOs have set the vision, they should get out of the way and allow the business units and project leads to drive the tactical initiatives and programs aligned to their overall business plan, and let the governance model help drive the final outcome.

Last but not least, it is important to remain focused on the end users, taking the time to find out what they want and how will they use the products or services to benefit themselves and their company. Building an enterprise IT architecture in a vacuum will only result in multiple revisions and set an organization back from achieving its business goals.

Michael Harrison is Vice President, Information Technology and Chief Information Officer of NexInnovations Inc, a provider of technology consulting, infrastructure, deployment and support expertise to organizations across Canada. Mr. Harrison specializes in helping organizations implement the systems and efficiencies necessary to take them to the next level of customer service and delivery. He can be reached at michael.harrison@nexinnovations.com



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