IT Architecture Is the Art of Doing the Impossible

IT Architecture Is the Art of Doing the Impossible

Michael H. Hugos says IT has to be flexible enough to roll out applications using new infrastructure long before the old infrastructure is mothballed.

Here's a challenge for you: Balance multi­year infrastructure development work with short, 30-to-90-day projects that deliver business application systems as business needs evolve. And do it so that even as you're implementing the IT infrastructure, you're delivering new applications that use this infrastructure.

You might think that you might as well try to change the tires on a race car while it's still moving. How can you build systems that use a new IT infrastructure until that infrastructure is in place? It's the role of the systems architect to answer that question, and the answer is one of the most strategic things that an IT group can provide for the business it supports.

It is clear at this point in the relationship between IT and business that we cannot keep refusing to deliver any new applications until we have installed all the new infrastructure and removed all traces of the old. That used to work: If we told business people to make do with what they had for a few years while we worked on installing and testing new IT infrastructure, they'd shrug and accept our decree, however grudgingly.

Those days are over. The world moves too fast and too unpredictably; a company's whole business model can change in the 18 to 36 months it takes to complete a big infrastructure upgrade project.

The key to the systems architect's seemingly impossible feat is to use iterative system-development techniques under the guidance of the enterprise architecture standards that have been defined for your company. Combine selected infrastructure components as needed with small chunks of custom code to create new systems. In this way, systems can be delivered and enhanced quickly. What keeps them from becoming an unmaintainable mess is that the systems are all created from the same set of components. That means that the IT groups trained in using this enterprise architecture can maintain and enhance any system built from those components.

A good systems architect also understands that, when done right, these short application-development projects actually drive much of the longer-term rollout of the new IT infrastructure. Most infrastructure components -- whether servers, operating systems, databases, middleware, Web portals, SOA tools, packaged software or programming languages -- can be rolled out in phases that build upon one another.

If a new application system requires the functionality provided by a database, a Web portal and some middleware all hosted on certain kinds of servers running a given operating system, then installation of those components occurs as needed to support that new system. It is not necessary to install these new components throughout the entire company all at once.

Over the course of years, the strategic systems architect will coordinate the expanded installation and use of these components to support the new systems that use them. The migration from the old IT infrastructure to the new one is managed and timed to best support actual business needs.

The idea that companies can carry on as usual while IT groups spend years trying to create a perfect enterprise IT platform before any new systems are built is a quaint notion from the last century. The real-time global economy of the 21st century demands that an effective systems architecture be dynamic, not static. Yes, it is a bit like living in a house while you build it, but that is what a good systems architect is able to do.

Michael H. Hugos is a principal at the Center for Systems Innovation and a speaker. He can be reached at

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