Architecture


Is Twitter poised to become a public enterprise message bus enabling a new range of transactional applications?  You can already see this happening with new on-line services/applications which (following your registration) monitor your twitter feed for specific/tagged data which is captured for use within the application.

For example http://www.fuelfrog.com/ will collect your auto fuel and mileage information – which you publish with your mobile twitter client when you are filling up.

The uses could become far reaching.   Some examples might include

  • Manage expenses real-time using twitter
  • Manage contacts & calendar events
  • New (enhanced) “devices” which publish transactional information for your use by applications

The simplicity, universal access and proven scale of Twitter are part of what make this possible.  It has a rich set of mobile clients making it very practical to participate in real-time from anywhere.   Twitter is continuing to support significant growth with fewer down times.  And Twitter provides a simple yet powerful public API allowing applications to connect.

One big challenge is privacy.   Currently Twitter status updates are wide open (unless you password protect) and expect you don’t want this type of data public, nor would your followers want to be distracted by it.  Maybe a feature allowing a category to be associated with updates (default would be status) and then clients could leverage this in queries to filter data messages.   Or maybe the direct messages could be leveraged – however this would be limiting as it prevents multiple applications from receiving an update.

Could this be in the future of Twitter?   I think the possibilities would be exciting especially with the rapid explosion of mobile devices with application stores and on-line services.

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With the rapid adoption of social media and use cases, are we seeing the birth of a new content structure with a need for management?   Instead of a content having only a single dimension, content of the future will be a composite which includes the enrichment of social activities.  Leveraging the full value of this enriched content will require looking at this content differently including new tools.

The term “social media” has gained prominence in reference to the various forms of content used in social circles – blogs, tweets, micro blogs, wikis, bookmarking, podcasts, UGC, etc.  While these technologies and content have led to an introduction of software to monitor the social activities in user centric manner – what about looking at it from a content threaded view?  Ultimately these social activities help to enrich, promote, correct, and clarify various content sources.

What if instead we had a concept labeled Social Content that effectively drew a connection through the social world to create content which leverages the power of community to become enriched?  This new content much like any other will have needs for tracking, capturing and viewing.  For example, I can imagine users might want to embed a piece of “Social Content” into an application allowing users the ability to see and interact with the additional dimensions of this content in real time. 

Current Social Media modeling

Today the social media landscape generally is viewed as:

socialcontent_current

 Here you can see how the focus is more centered around the base content type with links/references in/out based on social technology.  As social activities have increased, we are seeing tools to help tie activities together, often around a user model – showing their tweets, blogs, status changes, etc.

New “Social Content”

Now imagine if we considered a new form of content taking shape which more represents an active multi-dimensional content that at any one time is the composite of the base content (or multiple) and the various activities which have occurred around this content.

socialcontent_future

For example, someone publishes a video which then gets reference within a blog, tweeted about, emailed, commented on – each step of the way adding more information about this content and either enriching or possibly extending the content.  Even social analytics data, i.e. Twitter trends, could be correlated to the content and activity.

Just as a picture communicates more than words and video more than pictures – social content recognizes that community communicates more than individual

Managing Social Content

Treating this information as a new form of content will allow for it to be tracked, used, embedded, referenced – allowing the additional dimensions to be available and visible as part of the content.   One challenge in managing the content is the consideration that data exists across multiple tools, technologies and interfaces – and will likely remain this way.   Another challenge will be how to uniquely identify this data – likely to leverage the base content as part of the identification.   I am hoping to go into more detail on these challenges in a follow-up posting.

Using Social Content

Consider, for example, how someone might share a blog about a restaurant which could then be enriched with references to write-ups, information about the type of food and even other pictures/video.  This entire experience could be automatically identified and “packaged” as social content which could then be used in another blog, online publication, etc.   In practice one might embed a piece of social content into a power point or blog and the viewer widget would provide access to the original content along with the additional dimensions of community input.  These additional dimensions could reflect a point-in-time snapshot or live real-time updating content.

Now what?

While I have seen related concepts, I have not yet found a technology which captures this as described above.  In a follow-up I hope to further discuss the vision, challenges, and ideas for managing this content including usability considerations.  I would welcome any input!

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.

Enterprise applications present interesting challenges to those tasked with defining the architecture and design for the application.   In some cases the application is solving a well-known problem in a better way and other cases it is solving a still evolving problem.    In addition, more and more customers are seeking OOB applications for their enterprise solutions – so they expect to achieve their needs with limited “customization.”  This begins a series of posts to discuss the architecture of enterprise applications.

Regardless of the actual problem being solved, there are many non-functional requirements which should be accounted for in the system architecture.   When building these applications, the “architecture” will be a significant factor in the success of the application and organization building/supporting it especially as it relates to the non-functional requirements.      

Below are some of the non-functional requirements which I have found to be very important to customers and highly dependent upon a good architecture.

  • Flexibility.  Customers generally have a need for high degree of flexibility.  This will include the business rules embedded in the application, configurations, look & feel, etc.
  • Integrations.  Generally there is a need to connect the new application to existing tools and processes.   It is not unusual for these tools to be proprietary or be dated 3rd party applications.
  • Scalability.  Applications must scale to support large numbers of users.  Often these users can be dispersed around the globe and may include users from external companies.
  • Global.  This should not be confused with scalability as this reflects the reality that users are more and more spread across the world.  This requirement impacts how the system must interact with users.
  • Dependability.  Application must be dependable – both application availability and data integrity.  Users have come to depend on software and have a low tolerance for outages or data loss.  In some cases there are also regulatory rules at play.
  • Long Install Shelf Life.  An “Installation” will have a long shelf-life – customers cannot afford to re-install once a year.  It is not unusual to have enterprise applications in use for 3-5 years.
  • Long Development Shelf Life.  I have listed this separate because while it sounds similar to above it should be considered separately.  This requirement relates to the reality that a product will be under development for many years and modules of code may exist for 5-10 years before being re-written.  In addition this code/architecture will often out-live several generations of engineers within an organization.

Can you think of others?   The next post will begin considering how these impact the system and ideas for meeting the long term needs.