Monday, October 22, 2007

How close are we to overcoming the 10 challenges facing business mashups?

Once again I’m going to delay my QEDWiki review. Really, I’m going to get to it. Honestly. However, I decided that I needed to discuss overcoming the challenges presented by Dion Hinchcliffe in his post last week, The top 10 challenges facing enterprise mashups. Simply taking a futurist approach as I did in my last post didn't seem like it would be enough.

Hinchcliffe’s post generated a lot of discussions within both the mashup community, and within Serena Software specifically. A number of us debated his points, discussed whether we could help overcome the challenges and even used his post to guide discussions on features we plan to put in our future product releases. I guess this makes Hinchcliffe an honorary Serena Product Manager. Thanks! And thanks to my many colleagues at Serena Software whose ideas have been integrated into this post.

Hinchliffe’s ten challenges fall into three broad categories: business challenges, governance challenges and technical challenges. Rather than addressing each of his ten issues, I’ll address the categories.

Business challenges: Lack of business support for mashups and lack of killer mashup applications.

Remember when the web started to grow? At first it was full of sites with pretty pictures and cool graphics. Organizations created websites as experiments or as another avenue for advertising. It wasn’t until the web killer app came along, eCommerce if you were wondering, that we had the dot-com explosion. We can repeat this story with SaaS and When the business sees a killer app, the business wants the killer app. Once we find the equivalent for mashups, we’ll have the business lining up to invest.

Why hasn’t this happened yet?

Because we’re too busy talking about how cool mashups are. While cool is cool, it isn’t a killer app until it solves a business problem. We can take maps, charts and videos, we can pull in data from multiple sources and we can mash them together at the glass into a visually exciting experience for the mashup user, but no matter how cool it is, it won’t be a killer app until it’s scalable and useful. The problem with at-the-glass mashups is they don’t put the mashup in the context of a business activity. Yes, it’s great that I can pull data from many sources, but if the data aren’t actionable, what’s the point? If I can’t reuse the business logic across the organization, then why invest?

Let’s use an example. Assume I run a fleet of ice cream trucks and I want to make the best use of the trucks. I could use a presentation or data mashup to help by pulling local event information from online community calendars, school activity calendars, business announcements and even law enforcement announcements. I could map these events on a Google Map along with information about the likely size and times of the events. Using this information I could develop a schedule to optimize the routes of my trucks.

That’s a nice way to use mashups, but it isn’t a killer app. It’s not even a business mashup. It’s a data mashup with some cool graphics. A killer app would take the information from the mashup and use it automatically to schedule trucks, drivers and inventory to make sure the right trucks were at the right locations with the right inventory at the right time. The killer app would keep updating event information. A killer app would know when trucks are due for maintenance and schedule the maintenance around heavy usage days based on the mashed-up information. Our truck scheduling application is a business mashup because it puts the mashed up information in the context of the larger business problem, namely, optimizing ice cream truck utilization. The data aren’t enough. The data must be actionable and solve an actual business problem.

Once we understand that a killer mashup app has to be in the context of a business activity, that the mashup data has to be actionable, and that the mashup itself must solve business problems, then we will start to see a lot more businesses take mashups seriously. Until then, well we can always console ourselves that we are cool.

Governance Challenges: An immature services landscape, confusion over management and support of end-user mashups, chaotic data quality and accuracy and version management.

I’ve written about this issue before, both in my futurist post about the sematic web, and earlier when discussing the role IT can play as a trusted advisor to the business with respect to business mashups. Some discussions bear repeating, however, so I’ll cover some of the same ground again.

Lack of mashable content and data quality are interrelated. Without supported services tied to systems of record, mashers will have a difficult time ensuring the quality of their data. Long-term I believe this is a problem for the semantic web. Short-term, however, vendors need to start getting serious about enabling access to products through web services. At Serena we’ve already started this process, and we will continue to add services for the foreseeable future. As mashups become more accepted in the business community instead of just an IT tool I expect we will see this trend emerge with other software vendors. Note to business mashers: If you want your vendors to provide web services, you’d better start demanding them.

Management and support of mashups will be problematic and will get worse as more mashups are developed by the business community rather than IT. When talking to IT professionals about mashups developed by the business, this issue is where IT has the most heartburn. As Hinchcliffe notes, once upon a time this same scenario played itself out with PCs, databases and spreadsheets. The business started something, building applications, that it couldn’t support long-term and IT was tasked with providing support for applications about which they knew very little. IT has a long memory. I doubt if they will be taken by surprise again.

Surprised or not, IT isn’t going to be able to stop business mashers from developing mashups. Not only does the business have too much at stake, but the new generation entering the workforce doesn’t have a lot of patience with corporate hierarchies. They’ve grown up with technology and won’t wait around for IT to build their applications. To stay relevant, IT needs to become the partner of business and provide a secure and scalable infrastructure in which the business can build mashups.

It is inevitable, however that the business will eventually need support for their mashups. We could see a move towards centralization once more, just as we did when the business handed back all those Access databases to IT. However, business has a memory just as long as IT, and they will remember that while centralization did bring order to the mish-mash of rogue applications, the cost was business agility and strict IT control. I suspect that many on the business side of the house will look for an alternative.

Enter a new breed of vendor whose business will be to support the business. Budget oversight being what it is, these new vendors will likely provide support as part of a subscription process within a SaaS model. These vendors will need to fly under the capital expense radar and simply be a line-item on a department’s monthly expenses, similar to a cell phone bill. That means many business mashups will be purchased as part of a subscription model with support being provided by these new vendors. That way the business can build their mashups, but can also have a number to call when they need help.

I agree with Hinchcliffe that mashup version management has to be part of any mashup tool vendor’s offering. Lucky for Serena we’ve already got mashup version control as part of our mashup tools.

There is another version control issue that needs to be confronted, however. Version control of the individual services has long been a problem within SOA implementations. It’s a dark not-so-secret that uncontrolled services can cause disaster in SOA-based applications. If the SOA implementation has a successful reuse policy, the problem is even worse since a single bad service can bring down any number of applications. And yet there is no way for the SOA client to know whether a service has changed. Here vendors and 3rd party web service vendors need to be held accountable by consumers. Until that time, version control will continue to be a challenge.

Technical Challenges: No construction standards, the splintering of widgets, deep support for security and identity, and low-level mashup support by major software firms.

I’m bullish about overcoming the technical cited by Hinchcliffe. If we can get the business to throw their weight behind mashups, the vendors will have tremendous pressure to start providing some solutions that will make it easy for the business to adopt the business mashup model.

However, I’d like to challenge Hinchcliffe’s assertion that we need a unified method for mashup construction. Ditto for widget technology. It would be great if all the tools had a consistent approch, but I’m not sure I’d classify it as a challenge for mashup adoption in the enterprise.

Business mashers will have domain knowledge and a level of technical competence consistent with building Excel spreadsheet macros. Given that business mashups need to mash data and visual elements in the context of a business activity, it’s clear that model-based construction is the solution with legs. Our business mashers won’t be writing JavaScript. They won’t be writing any sort of code, even if that code is disguised as an XML document. They will be dragging and dropping visual, data and process elements using a familiar office-like interface. If that’s the case, the end user won’t care what is happening under the hood. A consistent method of construction may be a challenge for the vendors, but not for the mashers.

I do agree with Hinchcliffe that support for mashups among infrastructure and application vendors will continue to be an issue for some time. However, we might be able to solve some of the problems in the short-term. For example, if we are to put mashed content in the context of a business activity, we must have some sort of event driven architecture, or at the very least, a simple eventing system. Every vendor has one. Even Serena has one. We use the eventing system within the open source Eclipse ALF project. Eventing systems require participating software to kick off some external communication when important things happen.

Let’s consider our ice cream truck example. Ideally, the mashup would need an event to kick-off rescheduling truck routes when a concert gets cancelled, a new truck is purchased or a driver quits. the ALF project has tried to make the eventing system generic by providing web services to raise events, but again, the web services have to be tied to custom actions within the ALF event management system. While the pattern is the same for other vendors’ eventing systems, the devil is in the details.

One way to overcome this is to use eventing systems that already exist. Email leaps to mind, as do Outlook meeting reminders. Many back-end systems already know how to send emails and already integrate with outlook. While it may not be the best of all possible worlds, it would certainly jump-start event-oriented business mashups if the onus was on the mashup tool vendors to integrate with these existing event channels.

As for other low-level support, once again Hinchcliffe has it right. We can solve some of the issues, but the bulk have to wait until software vendors feel the squeeze from customers demanding low level mashup support.

I’ve saved the hardest problem for last: security. If anything is going to kill SOA and the companion consumption-side technologies, it will be security and identity management. Consider web-based applications. We’ve been at those for over ten years, and we still don’t have security under control. With SOA the problem is even worse because there are myriad potential back-end systems engaged in every mashup, and to date the most common method of passing around credentials is either as a parameter to service calls, or in the service header. With RESTful services the problem is aggrevated since the WS_* standards generally don’t apply at all.

One promising solution is the open source Eclipse Higgins identity management project. Many vendors have already signed up to use Higgins, but again, until all vendors adopt the standard, we are going to have the potential for serious security breaches within mashups. Especially mashups at the glass.

My conclusion is that yes, we have some challenges, but in many cases these challenges are either already in the works to be solved, or there is at least a roadmap for solving them. The ones that aren’t going to be overcome in the short-term will be side-stepped. How? I don't know. I do know that once the business understands the potential of business mashups, nothing will get in the way of widespread adoption.

No comments: