Forces That Shape IT

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-03-10 Print this article Print

If the enterprise IT stack were a physical structure, its architecture would not be described by a list of its rooms. To understand how that building could support the activities of an enterprise, one would need to know the sizes of the rooms, their equipment and special facilities, and their connections to one another and to the outside world.

In the IT architecture, applications are the rooms in the building, and their arrangement in relation to one another—their production and consumption of data, their need for storage and bandwidth and computational resources, as well as other interactions—determines whether that architecture is a pleasing, unified whole or an awkward arrangement that fails to do important things well.

New application development methods and tools, like new building materials and construction methods, challenge IT architects to learn—or to become historians and curators rather than developers and builders.

Forces That Shape IT

To understand the logic of a building, one needs to appreciate—if not necessarily accept—the assumptions that shaped its design.

Why is one enterprise housed on a parklike campus of low-profile buildings while another occupies a monolithic high-rise? The cost of land, nature of the enterprise work force, local geography and kinds of transportation available in an area affect these choices—just as an IT architecture is shaped by the costs of storage and bandwidth; the lifetime of enterprise applications; and the need to balance such competing factors as security, ease of support and computing price/performance.

The architecture of old IT was shaped by expensive computers, obscure and time-consuming application development tools, application-specific data formats and vendor-specific communication protocols—all working within a closed environment in which anyone with access was trusted.

Many of these influences now distort and weaken enterprise infrastructures. When the IT environment changes, an architecture that once made sense becomes an expensive monument to what used to be; that once-impressive IT monument may fail to accommodate fundamental changes. An IT architecture need not adjust to every passing fad; there are such things as enduring, even classic, designs that work because theyre right, even if theyre old. But there have also been breakthroughs in the flexible use of data, in the ease of real-time collection and analysis, and in the pervasiveness of network connections, for example: These enable or even compel corresponding changes in the ways that the enterprise envisions the spaces of application function or the arrangements of those functions into competitive capability.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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