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Architecting durable things

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue October, October 1 - October 31, 2002 | BY Kemal A. Delic 


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Enterprise design should be more like the B-52.

Enterprise design should be more like the B-52.

As we pass through a prolonged economic recession, investments in corporate IT/IS systems could drop significantly. Recent findings indicate that US enterprises have spent more than $700 billion in the past five years on enterprise software systems that are not used effectively ("Concentrating on the sum instead of parts," Financial Times, Dec. 5, 2001, p. 11).

One possible explanation for enterprise architecture's ineffectiveness could be a lack of the 3Es -- evolutionary, efficient and elegant -- in its design. The 3Es is a strategic visionary framework that should guide evolution of enterprise IT/IS systems, fitting efficient growth of the businesses. Sound enterprise architecture can be recognized on the spot, while nobody is sure yet how to implement it properly.

Business enterprises are notoriously complex, difficult to model and hard to manage. They might be highly abstracted as demand-and-supply meta-systems, with rapid flows and uncertain dynamics. One way to better understand them is to look into suitable analogies in biological, social, urban or financial domains. Good analogies can be found in unexpected places, as in the fascinating history of the B-52 ("Fresh Start 2002: Nonstop Flight," The core design of the B-52 has remained unchanged for half a century. The planes are predicted to be in operation until 2040. This is all the more amazing as the design was done when computers were running on vacuum tubes! I found the following observations bear striking analogy to the enterprise architecture principles.

First, it seems that the three parts of the overall the B-52 design can be clearly stratified as:

-- Unchanged from the day one

-- Technologically refreshed periodically, having (basically) the same functionality

-- Totally changed, beyond recognition

Lesson: We should identify the three segments of the enterprise IT/IS architecture bearing the same characteristics and have plans about how to evolve/maintain/manage those segments accordingly.

Second, the key design lesson for the B-52 is striking simplicity, which seems to be the principal feature of the design of durable things.

Lesson: Strive for the apparent architecture simplicity that will consequently imply elegance, beauty and longevity, as in all natural systems. (This is a tough one.)

Corollary: Longevity implies huge cost reductions. The B-52 is orders of magnitude cheaper to operate than its more sophisticated cousins, the B-1 and B-2.

Third: Engineers and designers are obsessed with usage monitoring, thus understanding to the smallest detail all usage aspects for every B-52 ever produced or in service. That's a lot of paper documentation!

Lesson: Evolution of the architecture is possible with a holistic view of how the IT/IS infrastructure/services are used within the enterprise. By close monitoring, corrections can be made in the three aforementioned parts of the enterprise IT/IS fabric.

This story is an important illustration of the engineering magic in which human-made artifacts can evolve and mimic nature-born systems. Survival and longevity might be the words to describe the ideal of durable things.

Kemal Delic [] is a lab scientist with Hewlett-Packard's operations R&D and a senior enterprise architect with experience in knowledge management, conceptual modeling, and realtime intelligent systems.


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