E-future lies in the back office

For the past few weeks, I’ve been searching for an image, a nuance, a breakthrough, anything that would give me an indication of what the next generation of e-business is really going to look like.

I eventually came to the conclusion that there won’t be a next generation of e-business. Not as such, anyway.

Like most successful revolutions, the e-business revolution was won not by the people who fought it, but by those who took over after most of the blood was shed. The dead (some of whom are memorialized at www.disobey.com/ghostsites) stood for egalitarian connections between buyers and suppliers, as well as unrestricted commerce among everyone from multinationals to mom-and-pop stores.

The living won with brand awareness, infrastructure and enough flexibility to adapt barely to changes in the business world that were so vast that financial empires rose and fell in response to them.

That’s mostly over now. Businesses have absorbed e-commerce’s lessons so completely that e-business is as much a part of regular business as customer service, direct mail or manufacturing management.

Low-Level Concerns

Pure e-business concerns these days are a bit ho-hum, to tell you the truth. The big fights are about intellectual property, privacy and how strict the regulations will be, not whether companies live or die. Incremental improvements are, of course, continual, just like in any other business function. Web sites become increasingly easier to use, and marketers become smarter about how to use them.

But the real changes these days aren’t on the business side, or even among the ponytails who maintain the Web. They’re among the more staid folks in the data centre who are being called on to make Web sites as reliable and as cheap to operate as the back-office operations they’ve had years to perfect.

Sophisticated IT operations are building into their Web structures features such as dynamic server partitioning and Interprocess Communications protocols to give their Web farms greater power, flexibility and connectivity.

They’re streamlining the one-application, one-server Web model by consolidating servers, then allocating to each application the memory and CPU capacity it needs, but no more than that. It’s a way to deliver maximum horsepower without wearing out the horse.

Other IT staffs are building powerful, flexible computing architectures using application servers, middleware and N-tier applications that take advantage of the distributed-computing model better than old-fashioned client/server ever did.

Nuts and bolts stuff. Hardly the kind of project you’d see profiled in Forbes. Or even in Business 2.0.

The next generation of e-business won’t really be e-business at all; it will be mainly IT. And that’s a good thing, for both business and IT.

When I started this column three years ago, there was so obvious a need to inject technology into the business process that even the most hidebound executive understood the need, if not how to satisfy it. Now, in my last column for Computerworld, I find it incidentally convenient that the pendulum has swung back the other way.

Alignment Is Simpler

Business folk have assimilated all the technology they can handle and are pushing responsibility for the more important technology back where it belongs to the hard-core specialists in IT. But this time, the perennial problem of how to align IT with the needs of the business is much simpler, because the connection between IT and business is so much clearer.

E-business isn’t IT, and IT isn’t business. Those two got very confused during the revolution. They’re distinctly separate, though more intertwined now than ever.

It’s that combination, and what it can accomplish, that I personally continue to find so fascinating. It’s an ongoing miracle of balance among consumer demands, user wish lists, tight budgets and the limits of technology that you, the IT people, manage every day. It’s a balance on which I’ll continue to focus, elsewhere.

Good luck with your miracles, and thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure writing about you.

Fogarty is editor at IT consultancy Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. Contact him at kfogarty@illuminata.com.