Application Platform Optimization
Business growth in today's highly competitive environment requires both an IT application platform and IT infrastructure that will deliver the manageability, security, interoperability, and connectivity.
Initially you may struggle to get hold of the concept 'Application Platform Optimization'. It states only one thing that your business applications (line-of-business applications) should work together for one single purpose: to further your business goals. So why does it become that they seem to work on cross-purposes sometimes?
Suppose your company is like others who have implemented various line of business applications sourced from various IT vendors, e.g., Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Salesforce, etc. Suppose your company also made the purchasing-decisions which were spread across time-horizons and were uncoordinated and undisciplined. Suppose your company also treated IT as a cost-centre, not a strategic asset. Add the website or web-portal, the legacy platform and the custom made applications for various more purposes of the functions/businesses to the equation. Ah! You are then having a bunch disconnected application platforms and would surely be toiling hard, very hard in fact, to get the best of your diverse application platforms. You must be struggling badly to achieve strong coordination of architecture, development, and/or operational management across these platforms.
Successful businesses know that enterprise business applications can cut costs and provide real-time data for critical decisions and strategic goals. However, most organizations struggle with their current systems' architecture which results in inaccurate data and redundant or manual processes. What happens then is that IT staff at companies often spends more time maintaining obsolete or disparate systems instead of creating new value or implementing strategic applications.
Forrester's Digital Business Architecture
Application platforms are a key IT foundation for most enterprises because business executives, managers, and professionals rely on the infrastructure software to run critical applications. Forrester has long recommended that enterprises should purchase application server platforms and suites, and shift their enterprise architectures to what they have called the Digital Business Architecture.
Forrester has long advocated the purchase of products that integrate the major categories of platform software for obtaining new levels of development, administration, and operational efficiency.
As a top-level conceptual model for planning the future of your technology and architecture, Digital Business Architecture aligns your planning with a new reality: More and more, the design of your business must be directly reflected in the design of your technology.
The business goals for each technology domain are the basis for a taxonomy of seven major strategic platforms for digital business:
- Service Oriented Application (SOA) platform
- Information fabric
- Interaction platform
- Information Workplace
- Unified communications platform
- Business service management platform
- Business design platform.
Along with these are six sub-platforms for event management, business process management, business rules, analytics, configuration management, and security. The strategic platforms for digital business provide focal points around which you can structure and design the future of your technology base.
Digital Business Architecture suggested that companies should adopt this approach for primarily three reasons:
- Many applications require the combined features of today's separate platform categories.
- A cohesive architecture affords opportunities to integrate operations across platforms and across the four major domains of Interactions, Business Services, Organic IT (data center), and Network.
- Keeping pace with business change at an efficient cost requires common and linked metadata across platform categories.
Microsoft's Application Platform Optimization Model
Similarly, Microsoft's APO Model also outlines a set of technology practices required for customers to move from 'Basic' use of an application platform technology through three higher levels of usage, each of which should provide greater cost efficiencies and effectiveness. The three additional levels in Microsoft's APO Model are Standardized, Advanced, and Dynamic.
In its model, Microsoft defines "application platform" as the set of servers and tools required to design, develop, and run a variety of business applications. The application platform software categories elaborated in Microsoft's Application Platform Optimization model include:
- Application servers, including the Windows Server.
- Portal servers and related products.
- SOA and business process management platforms.
- Data infrastructure, including database servers.
- Business intelligence.
- Application development tools for the above categories.
Without any suspicion, application platforms are a key IT foundation for most enterprises. Business executives, managers, and professionals totally rely on this infrastructure software to run critical applications in accounting, selling, supply chain, customer care, manufacturing, and many other areas. The definitions of application platform vary depending on the type of application. In general, an application platform is either an integrated product or a product suite that includes an application server, a portal server, and software for SOA, business process management (BPM), and application integration, along with development tools. Some platforms include a database and business intelligence software for query, reporting, and analysis too.
Even enterprises that rely heavily on packaged applications rather than custom, purpose-built applications have to ensure that the underlying platform is reliable, secure, cost-efficient, and can evolve as the business changes. Increasingly, application buyers are favoring products based on solid platforms conforming to either the .NET or Java interfaces. Most enterprises select one of these two platform foundations as the basis for the majority of their custom development and packaged application deployments.
APO Model suggests that enterprises should buy products that integrate these categories of software, each of which can be purchased separately. Convergence of platform software promises new levels of development, administration, and operational efficiencies. Converged application platforms shift responsibility for integrating multiple types of platforms from the customer to the vendor. These converged application platforms promise improved installation, configuration, and operational management, compared with collections of best-of-breed platforms. Also, vendors can build development tools for converged platforms that span a range of features, making it easier to combine today's separate features within individual applications.
The understanding of Application Platform Model provides you a solid tool for an objective assessment of selected business processes. The APO Model helps you deconstruct large problems and pinpoint root causes to better align applications and infrastructure investments. Whether your goal is to buy a new application, extend an existing application, or build one in-house, the APO Model makes it easier to quickly translate business objectives into IT projects that will add value to your business.
Despite of immense benefits, the real-life adoption of this approach poses strongest challenges to the company. Some existing practices & constraints hindering the optimization of application platform at companies are:
- IT management within the companies, forces consolidation of existing systems by cutting budgets. But the result is a consolidation of redundant applications, packaged application instances, and platforms.
- Most executives anticipate a convergence of application infrastructure capabilities, including business intelligence, application servers, portals, integration, SOA, and BPM to occur within their organization, but by chance or time, not by plan.
- A central procurement office at companies usually consolidates software purchasing with one or two vendors to maximize volume discounts, leading the company to acquire more software from fewer vendors, including platform software vendors. Sometimes they go beyond their application portfolio--application server/database/portal configurations and make decisions about the purchase of SOA, BPM, and BI, as well. They again purchase the additional required platform software from their current platform provider, and so one vendor supplies multiple platform categories.
- Software licensing costs, including limited budget/resources due to maintaining legacy platforms
- Distributed organizational structures and very high costs of deployment & training
- Organizational politics, which evokes the dispersion of decision-making authority for platform. This factor is often observed at work as IT groups that back different platforms do battle for application projects. This Darwinian-type of competition almost always ensures platform diversity, abjectly contrary to the convergence-objective. Additionally, business decision-makers often promote platform diversity by insisting on buying a particular packaged solution even though it requires yet another platform for the organization.
- Business intelligence is an isolated platform for most companies
It is not that they don't see the promise of platform convergence. They expect it to occur but still buy individual platform products rather than application platform suites. Still, the norm for enterprises is buying application platforms in parts, not as a whole. For convergence to become the norm across the six platform categories suggested by APO model, the decision-making must be coordinated among all or most of the six categories.
To Bring About Platform Convergence
Enterprise seeking the convergence or optimization of application platforms must start with Business Gap Assessment and the dive deeper into Application Gap Assessment.
Business Gap Assessment
The first part of this process is the Business Gap Assessment. You focus on alignment of your key business processes and the applications that support them. This assessment is designed to capture and define the critical business issues and industry-specific attributes that are causing you the most significant challenges.
Application Gap Assessment
The second part of the assessment process focuses on the applications that support these critical business issues. This assessment is needed to help deconstruct complex business applications into smaller, more consumable parts to help you prioritize investments and resources to deliver the maximum business value.
Based upon the key understanding of APO model, we can safely derive that a top-of-the class Application Platform Optimization solution should offer the following set of capabilities:
- Web/Portal. If you are doing business on the web, then it must provide you capabilities such as e-Commerce, Online Advertising/Digital Marketing, Web content creation and its management, Search, social computing, and communities, Digital assets and Analytics, etc.
- Custom Application Development. If your company needs custom-built organizational or departmental applications unique to your business processes, e.g., Human Resource Information Systems, then it must provide you capabilities for complete life-cycle management of applications, sound tools for application development, and managing user experience with these applications, built-in collaboration tools, quality tools, as well as a common development framework for web services, rich client applications, smart devices, and more.
- Data Infrastructure/Data Warehousing. If your company needs to store and connect the data/information securely, making the analysis, extraction, transformation, and loading processes heavily, then the APO solution should provide you capabilities to obtain data--which is aggregated, compressed, and stored in a dynamic, scalable, integrated system.
- Enterprise application integration. Like most companies, if you need to achieve the integration of Enterprise application environment, then APO solution should be based on at least one or more application-servers (example, Microsoft Windows Server). It will ensure that your front- and back-office systems are connected & well-integrated to support any business process or application, reducing complexity and ensuring a lower total cost of ownership of applications.
- SOA and business process management platforms. These are also known as 'Line-of-business platforms'. Sound APO solution would bring powerful capabilities of:
- Transaction processing, to ensure your transactions are completed or cancelled successfully
- A centrally managed application server that stores and exposes APIs for use by custom or third-party applications
- Data-management processes that address issues related to corporate assets, including data governance, architecture, security, quality, and metadata and master-data management
- Embedded communications technologies that unite existing communication systems and tools using integrated services and client applications
- Workflow automation that includes the tasks, procedures, organizations or people, information, and tools needed for each step in a business process
- Business Intelligence. If information is at the heart of your organization's ability to make 'strategic decisions' and you need to be confident that your insight into data is sound, informed, and complete, then APO solution must provide to your company tools for better decision making across structured and unstructured information via powerful Reporting & Analysis capabilities, dashboards, scorecards etc.
It's Not Just Where You Are, but Where You Are Going
The APO model can be understood like a technique for profiling an organization's maturity with respect to its application infrastructure, architecture, and development practices. The goal of this model is to give organizations a road map for optimizing their agility in providing IT solutions to meet the needs of the business.
The APO model uses the following four profiles of an organization's maturity:
- Basic—Organizations treat software as a cost. They have largely siloed applications with little integration or reuse. The applications that they do have might be on a variety of platforms. They do not have consistent standards for infrastructure or development techniques; they do not have a consistent architectural vision.
- Standardized—Organizations still treat software as a cost, but they have taken steps to improve efficiencies. They have an architectural vision and try to consider opportunities for reuse. They have started to integrate some applications, but they are mostly point-to-point integrations.
- Advanced—Organizations treat software as a business enabler. They have dedicated architects and a clear architectural vision. They have many services and achieve a high level of reuse. All core business processes are automated and monitored. They use a centralized, packaged integration platform.
- Dynamic—Organizations treat software as a strategic asset. They have a very mature SOA in vision and implementation. They have clear processes for dynamically versioning and redeploying services. The can quickly adapt to business requirements changes, and can quickly integrate with new business partners.
Somewhat implicit in the APIO model is the notion that every organization would aspire to move towards the Dynamic profile. In reality, it depends on the nature of the business and the philosophy of management regarding technology. Some businesses might be completely satisfied to stay in the Basic or Standardized profile. Two different organizations might well make different choices—each making the right choice for its organizational profile.
You should consider the current profile, as well as the near-term and long-term goals, with the near-term goal being the most important. An organization in the Basic profile, with a desire to be in the Dynamic profile eventually, might choose wisely to focus initially on getting into the Standardized profile; so, its technology decisions should mostly be consistent with the Standardized profile.
Converged platforms contain a broad range of functions, raising the complexity of both application development and ongoing management and operations. We cannot expect to develop a new class of individuals who can master all of these functions. Hence, interdisciplinary teams and application lifecycle management will be essential.