At what point does one draw the line between an enterprise IT application and an embedded system? Or is the question itself outdated, as these two once-separate domains converge?
We all know the characteristics of enterprise IT applications. They address a business requirement. Their design emphasizes maintainability of code rather than low-level hardware optimization.
They persist, in the form of legacy systems, and theyre subject to continuing refinement in the form of enhancements or through integration with other systems.
Enterprise IT applications also have a reputation for high defect rates, disappointing schedule slips and truly terrifying cost overruns.
Many enterprise IT projects are abandoned before they do anything useful, but the return on investment of the good ones is huge.
Those of us whove done bare-metal software development also know the characteristics of embedded systems. They translate the vague potential of devices into a specific function that may be utilitarian or frivolous. Their design minimizes every possible measure of resource intensiveness.
Embedded software is developed, deployed and abandoned at the tempo of product cycles measured in months or quarters rather than years or decades.
Its written to tight requirements of on-time delivery and on-specification performance—and if the code doesnt work, the product cant ship.
It seems, though, as if everything interesting thats being done today with enterprise IT is at an intersection—or perhaps in a no mans land—incorporating the most demanding elements from both of these domains. Meeting the complex, dynamic requirements of business process orchestration while meeting the zero-defect expectations of the embedded system looks like the new charter of enterprise developers and their technology providers.
This compound challenge was brought to my attention within a few minutes of the e-mail delivery of my weekly newsletter, "Peter Coffees Enterprise IT Advantage," last Monday.
Reader Roger Slykhouse, IT manager at General Motors North America Information Systems & Services group, in Warren, Mich., replied that Id overlooked one of the five core functions of enterprise IT systems. (If you dont already receive these developer-oriented epistles, you can add to your e-mail overload with a free subscription at www.eWEEK.com/newsletter_manage.)
Id suggested in that newsletter column that there are only four fundamental reasons to build an IT system: to make a decision, to record an action, to persuade an audience or to create content that people would pay to receive.
"I think you missed to make something happen," Slykhouse cheerfully admonished me.
A power grid managed through a Web interface, he observed, doesnt fit any of my categories.
Hes right, and such a system would likely be held to enterprise standards of integration and maintainability; at the same time, it would require an embedded systems performance and fault tolerance. Welcome to the 21st century.
At the far end of a remote control link, there might be more than just hardware actuators like the ones in a power-grid control center. Part of making things happen, for quite a long time to come, will be the delivery of clear instructions to people at another site.
(Think of Apollo 13 and the need to tell the astronauts in that crippled spacecraft how to assemble a carbon-dioxide filter from bits and pieces of other gear on hand.)
Another newsletter reader, Bob Hoffman of Polar Supply, in Anchorage, Alaska, made just that point.
Hoffman urged me also to think about "English instruction manuals written in China and translated by some guy riding on the back of a yak while delivering the goods to Wal-Mart."
If theres one more thing more challenging than defect-free, real-time communication with hardware, its achieving an equally robust link with a person.
The enterprise abstractions that weve labored to deliver, in areas such as database access, no longer need our attention as much as new tools for accurately, reliably controlling action at a distance—no matter whats doing the acting.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.
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