There has got to be a better way!  Having spent years building large business applications, it seems the time has come for the traditional monolithic application model to become a thing of the past … and be replaced by a new concept I have labeled a “mash-app” much like a mash-up but different.   First I’ll clarify what I mean by enterprise business applications and then consider challenges this creates along with how this can be overcome with new architectures – heavily influenced by SOA and web2.0.  Of course this requires some change in mindset as to what constitutes an “application.”

Enterprise Applications:  They’re broken

The term Enterprise Application takes on various meanings, but for the sake of this discussion it means an application used to perform mission critical business functions across the organizations of a business.  While the specific functions will vary from business to business, they generally include requirements around high availability, scalability, flexible and strong security, robustness of features, ability to model a customer’s business processes and ability to integrate with other technologies already part of the business process.

As these applications have grown and become more complex, they have effectively started to bulge and crack at the seams.  Years of growth, acquisitions and technology advances have pushed this type of software to point where they are broken.  This software often falls victim to:

  • Lengthy time to market for new innovations – software that is behind the times.
  • Contamination of features when new features added – over time even best intentions are hard to overcome as product becomes unwieldy.
  • Costly upgrade processes which may include re-integrations – more features, more customizations, more integrations as these large installations create upgrade headaches.
  • Unusable interfaces – often evolved over years of adding new features on top of old, using features in ways not originally intended, etc.

Deb Lavoy shares her thoughts on this also in a blog post titled enterprise software has 5 years to live.  Many of these challenges are rooted in the traditional desire to produce a single “application” including a single interface, single base of technology, single database, single installation – all ideal, but at what cost ($$ and time).

Mash-App: An Enterprise Application architecture of the future

A mash-app is a concept where the traditional application, both UI and services, are sufficiently componentized such that the final application is effectively a mash-up of the components while still delivered as a packaged solution.  These components would be integrated to meet the business and functional needs with integration via services (via web services) and user-interface components (via URLs, json, web services).

One challenge here is a possible change in how we envision an “application.”   Unfortunately we have grown accustomed to the Microsoft Office style of integration for a suite – one where everything looks almost identical and is so tightly integrated you might not know which technology is driving what features.   While this might be the holy grail of suite integrations – it introduces a number of challenges which limit a software businesses ability to innovate.

Leveraging this new Mash-App architecture, the larger application will now be decomposed into more distinct service groups allowing for:

  • True agile delivery of updates to those components without requiring complete reinstall, configuration, and re-integration of the complete application.
  • Diminished risk of cross-contamination when adding new features because features are more physically separated.
  • Efficient integration of 3rd party technology which at best share an underlying technology.  This becomes particularly important today when roll-up acquisitions occur frequently to enhance and augment functionality through innovation of start-ups and other vendors.
Mash-App:  simple example

Let’s suppose we have a document management application which leverages “users” for everything from access control to auditing and workflow.  The application generally provides a means for managing these users (even if fed from external source such as LDAP) to maintain application data.

Leveraging this new model, we will define the “User Services” as a component – both business services and user-interface services.   These services include the interfaces to define, manage, search-for, and display details of user information and would now effectively be a module.  When a different component of the application needs to interact with user services, i.e. search for a user, it would “call” the search-for user API (maybe via URL) which would present the end-user with a search screen and the ability to select 1..N users.   Upon completion the component would return control back to the caller providing the key identifying information.

With this approach, the vendor could easily decide to enhance the user services and deliver an update of this component with limited/managed risk to other parts of the application.  I believe this approach could be extended to the other functional groups within the application.

Mash-App:  so what do you think

Imagine entire applications built using this architecture?

While it might take time to achieve fully (unless building from scratch) – a movement in this direction will allow for a more agile approach to software development and delivery.   New acquisitions will deliver value to customer more quickly.  And even delivering “software+services” through mash-ups is more achievable as the core application is designed in a similar architecture.

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