Lego blocks: the new IT cool kid

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Lego blocks: the new IT cool kid

Middleware is the new black (again).

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There’s a revived trend secretly infiltrating IT shops around the country.

It doesn’t have a cool new acronym, and it’s an unlikely hero.

As with all fashion, middleware - the cool kid of the 1980’s - has come back in vogue.

What is often described as the glue between applications performs an essential - yet unsexy - task.

But it’s experiencing a resurgence with CIOs around the country.

News Corp and Navitas are using it to shift off behemoth legacy systems and onto individual cloud-based applications.

Queensland Health's battered IT shop wants interoperability to restore its reputation and improve its fortunes.

And financial provider ING is using the technology to forge ahead into the new world of the web. 

“Disaggregation of components is coming back into fashion likes flared pants and platform shoes,” Gartner analyst Darryl Carlton says.

“What we’re now seeing is the disaggregation of these suites that started becoming popular in the 80s and 90s, because they don’t hold as much value as they used to.

“The core back-end components are still very important to provide stability and large transaction support, but because of the nature of the packages suite they don’t provide the flexibility to go to market with new technologies, new ideas and new channels.”

Around 38 percent of Gartner clients currently have big ERP suites, according to Carlton, but the analyst firm is expecting that number to fall sharply to 11 percent over the next three to five years.

News Corp CIO Tom Quinn is one of the instigators of that projected decline.

Quinn’s been working hard and fast in recent years to shift the business to public cloud, and expects to reach 85 percent of systems hosted in the cloud by the end of the year.

As he pushes more and more of his internal applications and systems to hosting partners, he needs to ensure they are stitched together well enough to perform perfectly end to end.

As a result, he’s had to turn his focus to the glue that holds these systems together.

Quinn likens his environment to being made up of ‘lego blocks’ - each individual piece run by a cloud platform that could easily be swapped out and replaced when something better comes along.

But News Corp’s existing webMethods enterprise service bus is not equipped to manage hundreds of small cloud-based apps, forcing Quinn to study options like MuleESB and CloudHub for integration.

“If your apps are in the cloud then your integration needs to be in the cloud as well,” he says.

He’s appointed a team he dubs “Mind the Gap” to take care of the glue binding each of these applications together.

"If you've atomised your business and you've got a number of different services providing an end-end process for the business, there are gaps in between those services - things I assume will be done by that service and you assume will be done by that service," Quinn said.

Education provider Navitas has taken a similar approach.

It’s working to implement IBM’s Websphere enterprise service bus so it can add and remove applications while providing continuity of service for its students across 27 countries.

At the moment, the company uses a different management process for students for each step of their journey - starting from the enrolment process all the way to when they become alumni.

Navitas CIO Neil Hitchcock wants to make sure the process is seamless for students, despite the underlying myriad of technologies.

While a large ERP has benefits in scale and offering a single solution and data source, Hitchcock says it’s limited in meeting all the needs of an end-to-end process and is not that flexible for fast change.

“Counter this with a series of systems which have well-defined web services or APIs and specialise in that function,” he says.

“To compete in this environment of online sales, a company needs to have the best of both systems as well as flexibility to change as the competition around evolves. This is easier to do when you have a series of best-of-breed systems working at each process stage.  

“The integration layer then becomes a competitive advantage in its own right as it allows fast deployment of modern solutions in a constantly changing online landscape.”

Making more work for yourself?

Obtaining this highly flexible model doesn’t come without its challenges.

Not only do you need to create an environment with potentially more apps to manage than you started out with, you’ve also got to find the skills to look after the myriad of technologies involved.

Most of Quinn’s 500 IT workers at News Corp had a traditional skill set that would not work in the new approach.

Quinn laid out all his applications into "Batman and Robin" apps - 12 "hero" apps like CMS, HR, and CRM - and pulled together a list of his workforce based on the skills required for those areas.

He found 150 with the right skills and 100 who had the potential to be retrained - leaving 250 in limbo.

Hitchcock has opted to take Navitas to large service providers partners to access web services or application programming interfaces that his team can code against.

“Some of them have already built integrations into other large service providers (like Salesforce and Marketo or CampusVue and Canvas LMS),” he says.

“This is making it easier to build out of the box integrated solutions with little or no coding. Choosing large providers who have these services means you don’t necessarily need the skills to manage each service.”

He admits the more solutions involved in the workflow, the higher the chances you’ll have to build your own connectors.

But while there’s more work involved in integrating and passing data between systems, he says, more important is the ultimate user experience.

Having an easy, seamless, contemporary experience for students who are digital natives is important if they are to have a great experience and generate great outcomes.,” Hitchcock says.

“Putting barriers in people’s way through legacy systems or processes works to reduce the final outcome. In education, this can even affect a student’s final results.”

Could lego blocks restore fortunes for Queensland Health's notorious IT shop? Read on to find out..

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