Lego blocks: the new IT cool kid

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Lego blocks: the new IT cool kid

Middleware is the new black (again).

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..

Government not far behind

The approach is creeping its way into government.

Queensland Health - one of the country’s most notorious IT shops - has a heavily legacy and disparate IT environment.

Around half of Qld Health’s critical legacy applications talk to each other through similarly legacy platforms, Oracle’s e*Gate and JCAPS. External messaging uses a homegrown platform the department dubs the secure transfer service (STS).

The agency had implemented JCAPs as an e*Gate replacement, but a number of Queensland Health’s key applications are reliant on the old integrator. At the moment, the agency is using JCAPS to create and host newly-developed integration components.

Exacerbating the problem, around 50 percent of Queensland Health’s legacy applications rely on bespoke “point to point” type interfaces and messaging: there’s currently more than 300 interfaces in operation, and many applications have multiple interfaces. And that number is growing.

So it’s unsurprising the department is keen for a future devoid of e*Gate and JCAPS and one with a streamlined integration environment - not only for the technological benefits, but also to remove the costs of paying for extended support for the ageing products.

The agency recently went to market for a new interoperability solution that will replace the disparate and ageing set of interfaces with one that will enable Queensland Health to move into a modern IT operating environment.

“This is the most important procurement that we will do with regards to our information infrastructure,” Queensland Health CHIO Mal Thatcher recently told the Partners in Technology forum.

“This interoperability and integration engine will release our potential as a health service provider to be able to interoperate across the ecosystem of healthcare in Queensland, so it is critical for us.”

The future integration state outlined by Queensland Health paints a picture of a health system boasting specialised hospitals with top-class integration with other parts of the sector.

More timely and detailed information sharing will not only allow for effective workforce demand planning and evolving models of care, it will ultimately mean GPs and practitioners can better care for patients.

How the agency will get there is by using agreed standards for interoperability, rather than encouraging use of the same business applications. This will also allow third parties to implement different integration technologies, should they choose to do so.

The department also replacing everything from phones, servers, storage, data centres and over 50,000 desktops as part of its shift off Windows XP.

CTO Colin McCririck hopes the shift will propel the agency towards its strategic goals, such as the state government's push for cloud-first procurement.

“I don’t want to be running $50 million, $100 million projects, I want to be running small things and plugging devices in and out, and one of the reasons interoperability is so critical is it will be a facilitator to go down that path," McCririck said.

Read on to learn how ING Direct is entering the new world of the web...

Turning it up a notch

Then you’ve got IT shops who are taking the lego block approach to the next level.

Online bank ING Direct recently became the first known Australian customer of Google’s Polymer application tool-kit, which it has partnered with a customised version of the API Blueprint platform to make building and deploying applications a lot easier.

Polymer - Google’s open-source application development library for the web - forms part of Google’s efforts to give users an app-like experience on the web, offering developers interoperable custom elements to create standardised apps faster.

ING Direct is in the midst of a move from the ASP.Net framework and SOAP (simple object access protocol) to Polymer as the base of all its apps and websites.

But in order for Polymer to interact easily with ING’s backend, the bank needed some sort of string to tie all its lego blocks together - which led it to the API Blueprint open source web API language.

ING customised the tool - which is essentially a fake API plugging one way into a test function or website - to make it link back into its backend services and systems.

This ‘robot’, as ING calls it, now takes the requirement of writing code out of the developer’s hands and automates the process. It’s cut down the architecture team’s development time by half.

“In this fashion a prototype is essentially a working version of the assembled application. The intent is to reduce the degree of human involvement in the delivery process,” ING head of strategy Ben Issa told iTnews.

ING has taken a risk with this technology - it’s very new, and has been labelled as “embryonic” by Gartner in its Hype Cycle publication.

But Issa is willing to take the plunge. He believes the move will set the bank up for the future of the web.

“The [future web] is about performance, standards-based implementation, security and device agnosticism,” he said.

“We have positioned the channel architecture such that achieving this is second nature, the focus is now squarely on customer experience and function.

“We no longer build applications. We have, and are enriching, a module market sourced from industry and the ING global community. Modules are assembled into applications as the business requires.”

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