What is an application network?
Change creates the necessity for an application network
Right now the enterprise is going through an unprecedented period of change. The business world has changed. The customer landscape has changed. The competitive landscape has changed; in fact, the entire enterprise ecosystem has changed. Organizations are struggling to cope with this. There is a way forward, but it is not just about technology, it is also about making a wholesale change in the way IT and the business work together with technology. The way for businesses to thrive amidst disruption is to create an application network.
CIOs and other IT executives often say that they need to move faster. They also say that the delivery capacity within their IT organization is not meeting the demand from the business for technological solutions. Investment in IT has been consistently close to flat in the last 2 to 3 years; IT delivery capacity is actually at a constant in most organizations, yet demands from the business keep going up. The IT organization must manage cloud and SaaS, big data analytics, mobile devices and IoT as well.
The big worry, of course, is competition. Most businesses know that they need to improve their technology solutions — they need to improve the channels on which they engage with their stakeholders, they need to improve their business operations and they need to innovate. IT is at the center of all this. But the challenge is that IT is still very centralized. There is no way that a centralized IT organization can deliver on everything the business wants and needs — rather, a traditional centralized IT structure is creating an IT delivery gap. Many CIOs say that they are behind what they need to deliver on and they know that there are more projects coming that must be delivered. An application network can help solve the IT delivery gap.
The definition of an application network
To solve the IT capacity gap, it is necessary to change the approach to connecting applications, data and devices. A seemingly easy fix for the problem might be to create numerous point-to-point connections to tie everything together, but this is not a viable long-term solution. As this is done again and again over time, a tight interlocking of applications and data is created inside the organization. This completely removes the ability to move fast and change anything, as any change will have time-consuming and complex downstream consequences.
A better approach is to build an application network. An application network is pretty simple; it is a way to connect applications, data and devices through APIs that exposes some or all of their assets and data on the network. That network allows other consumers from other parts of the business to come in and discover and use those assets. Building an application network involves developing reusable assets and then encouraging those in the business to reuse and self-serve those assets. Then, they can get used and reused in different ways inside the organization. Connections can then be built between these assets. It is necessary to allow development teams in the business to build what is needed — to self-serve the reusable assets created by others to in order to develop something new — and then expose it to the rest of the organization to be reused.
This is done in the application network by defining simple abstractions. The API is the best abstraction we have in the enterprise for exchanging information between two parties. And that is exactly what is being done — information is being exchanged between other applications. For example, the customer service representatives are exchanging information with the BI department doing analytics reporting. Another group inside the business is exchanging information with partners involved in B2B transactions. APIs are the perfect model for those exchanges because they provide a definition of both the provider and the consumers as well as provide a way for the interactions to be managed very closely.
Once the discipline of consumption, self-service and reuse is established in the organization, a different type of landscape emerges — an application network. In this landscape, not only are there reusable assets available to be deployed throughout the organization in order to create and deliver new products more efficiently, there are enablement teams to help those development groups understand best practices on how to build new products and services as well as point the way to a repository of services available for reuse. Everything that is posted in the application network is discoverable, managed, governed and secured; the central IT organization has management and governance over all the services while allowing development teams in the lines of business to use them for whatever project is deemed necessary. People building new services and products throughout the organization can take them as is or they can take a building block, add to it and publish a new building block. The possibility of multiple teams leveraging the value created by one has now been opened.
An application network is not an architecture. It's a set of building blocks on top of which architectures can be built. And its managed and federated nature means that it bends, it does not break. New products and services can be plugged in and unplugged easily. The central IT organization can govern all the assets and understand how changes affect the business with great ease.
An application network is not simply about technology
An application network is not just about building applications and sticking them together with APIs. What it really represents is a cultural shift. Many businesses want to understand how to organize themselves to be agile. The key to achieving agility is not how many assets are present on the application network but, rather, how many consumers are getting value from it.
This represents a big shift from the way IT traditionally operates. The IT organization now becomes not just a producer of assets but also an enabler for the rest of the business to consume those assets. The business itself has to change because all parts of the organization now are on the hook for delivering some of their own capabilities and some of their own projects. The focus is on building communities and developments around certain capabilities inside your organization. Those capabilities will allow the business to self- serve and collaborate with other groups inside the organization to enable the delivery of multiple IT projects. This is how an application network helps IT increase its capacity and close the delivery gap.
An example of why an application network is necessary
This can be demonstrated with an example that is common in many enterprises — integrating Salesforce with an SAP database. It might be quite tempting to build a custom integration to tie the two applications together.
In theory, that approach is fine. It's on time, it's on budget and meets requirements. The problem with this approach is that there will not be any leverage or reuse out of the project. The applications are tightly coupled together and there is no additional value extracted from connecting Salesforce to SAP. After this has been done for the first time, if another team needs to have access to these applications, the integrations must be created again. Once a large number of these integrations are built, it becomes very hard to govern anything or get visibility into what is happening between systems.
Initial investment in the application network pays dividends later
In this new operating model, people, their tools and the technology must behave in a different way. Instead of delivering projects, the IT organization is actually directing projects. They are ensuring quality, reusability and thinking about security. They can actually focus on delivering strategic products and innovative initiatives rather than running on the hamster wheel delivering the next connection between Salesforce and SAP. It also means that system experts are now not needed for every single project. If a service needs to be created on top of SAP for customers and then there is a need to create another service for reentry data, they now have a blueprint on how to unlock that information, which means projects can be completed more quickly. A number of organizations are seeing these benefits emerge from an application network; once this starts happening, once or twice, the discipline is in place and the business can move quicker. Finally, everything that goes on the application network has analytics, security and governance built in.
The whole point of setting up an application network is to thrive in the face of change. The only constant is change. We are in a world of extreme competitiveness. It's not the biggest or the strongest that survive; rather it's the fast that eats the slow. An application network can give the agility and flexibility that an organization needs to thrive in the midst of digital disruption.
Take a look at more resources on how an application network could help your organization.