Challenges of Emergent Architecture

By Balasubramanian Somasundram, Honeywell Technology Solutions Ltd.

In 2009, Gartner had coined a term called ‘Emergent Architecture’ advocating the need for a re-orientation in Enterprise Architecture practice. According to this paradigm, Gartner suggests Enterprise Architects must adopt a new style of Enterprise Architecture to respond to a growing variety and complexity in markets, economics, nations, networks and companies. Gartner had also listed some of the characteristics of such an Emergent Architecture and the kind of changes that we can foresee in near future.

After two years, I wanted to take a closer look at this observation and correlate some of my personal experiences from Enterprise IT.

To set the context, would like to quote the emergence of situational applications. In simple terms, situational applications solve immediate business challenges by addressing a situation in hand. The key characteristics of situational applications are – unique situation, highly personalized, immediate and time-sensitive nature of business scenario.  A “situational application” is a broader term that includes concrete implementations such as Mashups and Composite applications.

So far, Enterprise IT has been busy with ERP/CRM and packaged applications and custom developed web applications. Now, that era of “hand coding” is almost saturated and hit a plateau due to couple of reasons such as – Enterprise roll-outs of ERP/CRM are complete, custom developed applications are rationalized and consolidated with ERP suites and demands for new custom developed applications are challenged for solid business cases.

However, the unique business situations still demand for small/nimble IT solutions that wouldn’t wait for long lead times, big business cases. What is the solution?

Situational Applications can help.

The key characteristic of these situational applications is that business doesn’t have the details about the requirements or responses. All it has is the outcome that needs to be achieved. Sometimes, business just wants to experiment with multiple options before zeroing on one solution. In some cases, business wants to build just a pilot, scaled-down version of the actual solution and eventually evolve it to an enterprise-class solution. Sound familiar?

I would say this is one of the categories of emergence scenarios that Enterprise Architecture needs to deal with, for both business and IT stakeholders.

In contrast to what Gartner states, the key challenges that EA needs help solving are not just macro issues such as geopolitical risks or outsourcing governance etc., but micro issues that would help executing day-to-day projects much more effectively. This will build the credibility of EA groups at grassroots level and drive some real changes in business/IT. I would like to list some of those challenges to be solved:

  1. Given the uncertainty in requirements and technologies, what is the best way to cater to these business requests for building situational applications? Certainly, agile methods can help to certain extent. But the scenarios that revolve around situational applications are much more dynamic and need much faster results. Another way to look at this challenge is, how do these unique business situations fit in the overall business architecture?
  2. How do we engage business users to gather requirements in creative ways, especially when business users themselves may not have all the data upfront?
  3. If we need to build nimble, simple IT solutions, we need to have a solid architecture foundation. How can EA help both segments? – foundational and situational
  4. How do we make sure we create an ecosystem where the new architecture ‘evolves” as the requirements and solutions themselves evolve over a period of time?  How do we make sure architecture not only evolves, but translatable to an enterprise-scale solution?

Thanks to The Open Group, we have robust frameworks and methodologies for building deterministic enterprise architectures. It will be interesting to see how The Open Group addresses the demands and challenges of nondeterministic/emergent enterprise architectures as stated above, in the future.

Enterprise Architecture is a subject that will be discussed in depth during The Open Group Conference, London, May 9-13. Join us for best practices and case studies on Enterprise Architecture, Cloud, Security and more, presented by preeminent thought leaders in the industry.

Balasubramanian Somasundaram is an Enterprise Architect with Honeywell Technology Solutions Ltd, Bangalore, a division of Honeywell Inc, USA. Bala has been with Honeywell Technology Solutions for the past five years and contributed in several technology roles. His current responsibilities include Architecture/Technology Planning and Governance, Solution Architecture Definition for business-critical programs, and Technical oversight/Review for programs delivered from Honeywell IT India center. With more than 12 years of experience in the IT services industry, Bala has worked with variety of technologies with a focus on IT architecture practice.  His current interests include Enterprise Architecture, Cloud Computing and Mobile Applications. He periodically writes about emerging technology trends that impact the Enterprise IT space on his blog. Bala holds a Master of Science in Computer Science from MKU University, India.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Challenges of Emergent Architecture

  1. Keith Youens

    Thanks for the article although I would like to clarify / speculate on some of your points.

    I would suggest that these “emergent archictures and or situaltional applications” both refer to ephemeral, composite applications made up of component “services” within a very architecturally mature organisation.

    These might be created and used by “knowledge workers” within a very dynamic market where workers, suppliers and customers and connected and interacting in real-time, all with access to the same information.

    Thoughts?

  2. I always wonder… wonder why we still “forget”… “forget” to look at what it is really all about… About meaningful information for people in an ever incresing dynamic world. And meaningful information is… always… situational information. When we finally start to learn to organise our information in a… contextual fashion – wow that would be ReaL ArchitecturE! – we are truly ready to build situational applications. But the starting point definitely lays outside the IT paradigm… the starting point is contextually ordered information.

  3. Keith,

    Yes, as you have mentioned, situational applications are technically feasible only in architecturally matured organizations. This also implies that the organization has a robust foundational enterprise architecture that enables building dynamic situational applications. In addition to foundational architecture, the situational applications themselves would have ‘micro-architectures’ within themselves and that has emergent nature. The organization’s enterprise architecture should guide the evolution of such emerging micro-architectures as well.

  4. Jan,

    You’ve got a interesting statement! The ability to organize information that is meaningful in a specific context leads the way to real architecture. And in my experience, this is the pressing need of the business scenarios today. How can our Architecture practice cope up with increasing demands of todays’ needs is the question to be solved.

  5. One way to build the required architecture that addresses both the foundational and situational needs and yet enables the architecture to “evolves” is to adopt an fractal design approach where a complex eco-system is made up of simple units such as a swarm of ants and to externalise all binding/connection information between a service consumer and a service provider to an evolving execution context. See OASIS SOA Reference Model for more details about the concept of the latter.

    • “and to externalise all binding/connection information between a service consumer and a service provider to an evolving execution context.”
      You mean… we need an information infrastructure in which information-use gets independent of the way it is organised…?! If you like, have a look at http://www.information-roundabout.eu

      • That could be one way of looking at it. What I mean is that information is structured in a context-free manner and it is only during runtime execution that an agent is able to contextualise the information to enable connection and subsequent conversation between a service consumer and provider.

  6. Frank Lillehagen

    We have to better understand what is behind the term emergence.
    1. Holistic enterprise design and engineering, and continuous evolution and innovation driven by changing situations and operations.
    2. The greowing need for global resource training and team recruitment based on architecture configured and adapted workplaces
    3. Agile architecture enginnering must capture situation-driven architecture aspects and contents from user and architect workspaces,
    4. Emergent EA is capturing the evolutionary development of the architecture as tasks performed by teams of users and architects.