By Khawer Iqbal, Managing Director, 
email: khawer@zeennet.com

Dec 31, 2001 - Jan 06, 2002

The IT industry is currently experiencing the latest wave of investment in new technologies, but how much will it learn from recent history?

In the late 90s the advent of client-server technology led to major investment in the next generation of corporate systems. Still struggling with the legacy systems of the previous 10 years, the challenge was to deliver a new breed of systems which brought new business value, while not devaluing existing IT investments. At the same time, the productivity advantages offered by client-server tools encouraged rapid development in preference to more traditional, structured development techniques. This combination of new technology and immature development methods once again led to a generation of systems which posed challenges when faced with the need to expand and adapt to meet new business needs.

Now, at the start of the new millennium, there is unprecedented interest in a new wave of web-based technologies. How will corporate IT divisions respond to the challenges posed by this, and to the lessons of the past?

Time for a new approach

This time around, time-to-market has become a more critical factor than ever before in system development. Good eBusiness capabilities are becoming a key differentiator in many marketplaces, and slow entrants to this arena run the risk of missing major business opportunities, or perhaps even losing market share.

The winners in the eBusiness arena will be those who are best able to reconcile a number of critical objectives:

•Rapid delivery of new solutions
•Adaptability to change
•Quality of product

While software packages provide comprehensive off-the-shelf functionality, they usually lack adequate flexibility. This can result in packages dictating the way a business must operate, rather than the reverse. By contrast, components provide the essential building blocks of solutions without dictating the shape of the solutions themselves. Hence they can offer massive time and cost savings while providing enormous flexibility to solution designers.

Designing for change

Components may provide a number of different types of functionality, from business-oriented functions such as payments and statement generation to technical functions such as messaging, transaction management and security. Isolation of business components from technical components is important, however, since a change in business functionality should not imply a change to the underlying technical components.

A sound technical architecture is essential to the success of component-based developments. A successful architecture is one in which individual components can be enhanced, and new components added, with minimal impact to existing systems.

This is particularly critical in view of the rapid evolution of web-based technologies. Current standards such as HTML, for example, provide obvious limitations to interface designers, not even matching the previous generation of client-server tools in terms of interface sophistication. Such limitations dictate that these technologies must evolve to meet the needs of a market which will demand ever more sophisticated web-based business systems. The rapid emergence of new platforms such as WAP, SMS and Interactive TV are an indication of the speed at which this evolution can take place. The ability to embrace new standards and technologies as they emerge is critical, and will provide significant competitive advantage.

Choosing the right supplier

The marketplace for solution providers has a number of new kids on the block. The Internet explosion has spawned an increasing number of dot-com development specialists. The origins of these companies vary, with many evolving from design agencies and hence offering specialised graphical design skills in tandem with system development capabilities. While offering a high degree of expertise in new-media technologies, however, such suppliers are often not well-equipped to deal with the integration of new solutions with back-office systems.

The ability to fuse new-media technologies with existing systems and business operations will become an imperative. Deployment of standalone web solutions offers limited benefits, and often merely highlights deficiencies in end-to-end business processes. A successful e-business solution is one which achieves seamless integration of business processes across all technical platforms and business organisations.

When choosing a solution provider, consider the lessons of the past, and be aware that today's systems may be tomorrow's legacy. Those suppliers best equipped to avoid previous mistakes will often be those who have extensive experience in dealing with the challenges of client-server and mainframe systems. The need for sound architecture, code maintainability and appropriate rigour in design, development and testing should be second nature to such suppliers, and should be engrained in their methods and culture. These suppliers are also more likely to provide a truly end-to-end service: from requirements analysis to system testing, from web interfaces to interfaces with legacy systems.

Look also for those suppliers who can offer a library of components which can accelerate development activity, and hence reduce the cost of new systems. Such suppliers are a rare breed, but can deliver unparalleled time and cost savings.

Above all, look for suppliers with the vision to deliver a platform for the future, rather than a short-term solution. Such suppliers will combine business awareness, technical design and development expertise and sound experience of the delivery of enterprise systems.

So when you are planning your next e-Business investment, ask yourself the following question: am I investing in the company's IT future, or simply building a legacy?