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The Value of An Enterprise Architecture

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I’ve been reading a lot recently about how much enterprise architecture is getting more attention with the economic downturn.  I wanted to take a minute here and recap some things I’ve said in the past. I then want jump into what I think are the building blocks of an enterprise architecture.  A while back I said that the essence of an enterprise architecture is that it lays out how information and IT enable the realization of the enterprise strategy, and it provides a framework for supporting and automating business processes using IT capabilities.  Together with the IT strategic planning process, an enterprise architecture helps align IT initiatives more effectively with strategic business imperatives.  It identifies both the current state of the enterprise and the future desired state, and it enables business and IT managers, including the governance team, to see how the enterprise can transform itself in stages from the current state to the envisioned future state.

You may also remember that I said by describing the essential, overall design of these architectures as a holistic "system of systems" and by providing the context, guidance, and discipline  for the development of the more detailed, system- and service-specific architectures, an enterprise architecture provides a way to translate between business needs and IT capabilities.  It shows how the business needs are to be met by the enterprise’s information systems and the information services they provide, thereby creating a bridge that ensures alignment of business and IT.

Properly envisioned and implemented, an enterprise architecture is a fundamental tool that anticipates future needs and enables the organization to implement change rapidly in response to changing business priorities.  It enables the IT organization to respond rapidly to changes in business strategy, processes, and environment.  It enables the company’s business units to realize their critical business goals and strategies by providing a framework that supports all the processes, information, and IT systems that those goals and strategies require.  This brings me to the next section:business services.  I think these services are the building blocks of a solid enterprise architecture.  I’ll tell you why:

Business Services:  the building blocks of an enterprise architecture

In my opinion, one of the important innovations in enterprise architecture is the focus on business services.  Business services are well-defined, automated components that provide the information that the enterprise needs both to deliver goods and services to customers and to coordinate and perform work as part of an operational process.  I’m always asked when I bring this up, "what constitutes a business service?"  My answer, at the highest level, business services are services provided to customers, such as online support for shopping: finding, ordering, and paying for products, tracking their delivery, and perhaps coordinating returns.  At a lower level, business services are finer-grained services that automate or orchestrate individual steps in the enterprise’s business processes:  add a part into inventory, look up a customer, check credit, check availability, look up order status.  High level business services are built on lower-level services, without higher-level services knowing anything about the implementation details of the lower-level services they use.

By evolving the enterprise to become service oriented, and modeling it using a service-oriented architecture (SOA), an agile and flexible enterprise can respond quickly to key business needs.  Imagine having a set of building blocks with a standard "snap-together" interconnection mechanism.  An SOA enables the enterprise to use and reuse business services from a variety of sources in new ways, without a lot of development or integration effort or knowledge of the service’s location, enabling a rapid response to new opportunities and business priorities.

Along with its emphasis on services, an enterprise architecture also identifies the service events that are relevant to the business.  These events can then be viewed through business activity monitoring tools; they can also alert the appropriate people or trigger automated processes to handle conditions associated with the event.  By enabling support for near-real time processing of service-related events, the enterprise’s information systems become, in effect, the digital nervous system of the enterprise.

Finally, the enterprise architecture also translates between the business services and the underlying IT infrastructure services that provide the resources that the business services require.  More and more this translation takes place without the need for procedural programming; instead, service designers provide an operational model defining the key parameters of the service, and the service delivery management system automates the delivery of service based on those parameters.  This approach is known as model-based automation, and it plays an important role in enabling the agility that characterizes an agile and flexible enterprise.  Because it is easy to change a parameter value in a model – much easier than it is to rewrite a hard-coded service – it becomes much easier to adapt a service quickly to changing needs.

In conclusion, I’ve stated before that there are three design rules – along with the four principles of design – that are vitally important when evolving IT capabilities to enable a flexible, automated response to change.  They are:

  1. Virtualization:  to pool and share IT resources across applications, business processes, and suppliers to balance IT supply automatically with business demand.
  2. Model-based automation:  to define and manage IT services quickly and easily.
  3. As I stated above, service-oriented architecture (SOA):  to enable the rapid assembly and integration of IT services (business services, application services, and infrastructure services) based on reusable components, especially web services.

Through the use of an SOA, an enterprise’s IT team can quickly and easily reassemble and reconfigure core application and infrastructure services into a wide range of new business services.

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