Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why Software Product Delivey is not Identical to a Car Delivery?

I happened to sit in one of the project review meeting where client raised a question on software delivery expecting it to be used in production on the day of delivery by the vendor. He went ahead and started comparing it with a use case of a customer driving off a car upon taking delivery. I know all the project managers out there will jump in to say that don't compare apple with orange. On the one hand, yes, software development is unique and cannot be compared with production of a tangible product. On the other hand, attempts are being made by various standards organizations in helping the industry achieve a high maturity process capability and thus deliver production quality software consistently.

Software product vendors selling or licensing software products can however be compared to Car manufacturers. Take for example, Microsoft Office product suite, one can just go and buy it off the shelf and use it, just like driving off a car. This is possible for product vendors because, the product vendors over a period acquire enormous amount of knowledge on the targeted product domain and in turn subjecting it through as many cycles of testing before announcing its readiness.

A typical car from concept to production may take atleast few years and it would be in the order of around 3 to 6 years. During this period, the product undergoes various cycles of tests, which include crash test, drivability on the road conditions of the target market, etc. Similarly, software product vendors do conceptualize the product idea and then work on it over a period. The vendors are attempting to achieve a faster time to market, but by adopting newer product development methodologies. The one that works best is to identify the smallest piece of the software that can meet certain specific use cases and then build on top of it over a period of time.

In case of a software product, it is the vendor's responsibility to subject the product through various tests in production like environments before getting it out to customers. The tests include alpha and beta tests, where in interested end users are engaged to use it in production environments and collect the feedback on various aspects and the developers working on it to have all those critical issues addressed. Achieving a zero defect state may not be a possibility and vendors take balanced approach as to whether wait until all the identified issues be addressed or reach out to the market with certain known issues, which can be addressed in subsequent product releases.

But it is a different approach when it comes to bespoken software projects. The major challenges with the bespoken software projects that differentiates from software products include:

  1. It is the Client who specifies the requirement. Though the vendor might facilitate documenting the requirements, it is the customer who formally agrees as to what need to be produced.
  2. Lack of understanding and agreement on the non functional requirements, which are not documented in most cases.
  3. The vendor might not be an expert in the target domain area. Though the vendor has expertise in the domain area, it is the customer's need that is final and not the vendor's understanding of the requirement.
  4. The ever changing requirements. By the time, the vendor delivers the software, the requirements as agreed by the client would have undergone change due to various reasons.
  5. It is difficult to unambiguously understand the requirements as the project progresses through various phases involving humans with varying abilities.
  6. There are dependencies with various pre-existing or emerging software and hardware environments in the production environments of the client.
  7. The client has the roles and responsibility to assume to make the project successful. However, it is for the vendor to ensure that the client understands their role and responsibility throughout project life cycle.

Another point to consider for this discussion is what constitutes delivery. A well written SoW (Statement of Work) clearly lists down the acceptance criteria, which when met would constitute acceptance of the delivery by the client. For a given requirements, no two vendors would build an identical solution. That's due to the tools, technologies out there for use and the varying intellectual abilities of those involved in building the software. It is important as to what the client wants, than how the vendor delivers the solution. For this reason, the client shall assume the responsibility of performing an user acceptance tests. Some times, the delivery of a software might mean implementation in production environment, which might involve data migration, appropriately configuring various pre-existing software and / or hardware.

In the end, it is all about managing the expectations of the client. It is not just setting at the start, but needs to be appropriately managed throughout the project life cycle.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Application Integration - Business & IT Drivers

Design Patterns are finding increased use for its apparent benefits, i.e. when there is a solution for a common recognized problem, why reinvent the solution again, instead use the solution design that is expected to address the problem. However it is not a one size fits all, as there are a combination of factors that may influence the choice of the design and architecture. Enterprise Application Integration is a complex undertaking and it requires a thorough understanding of the applications being integrated and the various Business and IT drivers that necessitate the integration.

There are numerous approaches, methods and tools to design and implement Application Integration and it is always a challenge in choosing the right combination of design, tools and methods to accomplish the business need. Selecting the right design requires good knowledge of the problem on hand and the other related attributes that drives the solution. In this blog, let us try to identify various business and IT drivers that the architects need to understand well before making a choice of the design, method, tool or approach.

It is also worth understanding that these drivers should be considered collectively. While a particular tool or design might seem to solve the specific need, it might require certain other needs to be compromised. Thus it is a mix of art and science that the Architects need to apply.

Business Drivers:

  • Business Process Efficiency - The level of efficiency that the business wants achieve through the application integration is a basic need that should be considered. Being a basic need there is a tendency amongst the Architects to neglect to have this documented and thus leaving a chance failure in this area. Knowing this will also be useful in validating the design through the implementation phases.
  • Latency of Business Events - Certain business events are time sensitive and need to be propagated to the target systems within a time interval. Achieving a low latency integration may require tooling the components at much a lower layer of the computing hardware.
  • Information / Data Flow direction - Whether the data or information should flow in one way or should it be a request / response combination has an influence on the choice of design. 
  • Routing / Distribution - The information or data flow might be just a broadcast or in some cases, there have to be a response for each request. Similarly, the target applications may be one or many, which could be dynamic based on certain data combinations. These routing and brokering rules have to be identified to orchestrate the data flow appropriately.
  • Level of Automation - End to end automation might require changes to the source and / or target applications. Alternatively, it might be a best choice to leave this to be semi automatic, so that the existing systems and related process may remain unchanged. An example of this could be participation of a legacy system which is likely to be sunset in the near term, in which case changes to the legacy system is not preferred.
  • Inter-Process Dependencies - Dependencies between processes would determine whether to use serial or parallel processing. It is important to identify and understand this need, so that processes which can be processed in parallel can be identified and designed accordingly, so as to achieve efficiency.

IT Drivers:

  • Budget / TCO - Any enterprise Initiative would be budget driven and the Return on Investment must be established to get the consent of the project governance body (or Steering Committee). The Choice of tools, design and the approach should be made considering the allocated budget and aiming to achieve a lower TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).
  • Technology and Skills - It is also important that the design and architecture considers the technology in use in the organization and the availability of skilled resources to build and as well as maintain the integration implementation. Application Integration solutions require a continuous maintenance as either of the source or target systems or even the business processes are likely to undergo changes. 
  • Legacy Investment - All enterprises will have investments in legacy systems as the technology obsolescence is happening faster than planned. It would be prudent for enterprises to explore opportunities to get returns out of such legacy investments where possible. The Architects shall consider this aspect while designing integration solutions and thus facilitate planned sunset of Legacy systems over a period.
  • Application Layers - Integration can be achieved at various layers, viz. Data Layer, Application Layer, UI Layer, etc. The choice of the integration layer depends on various business drivers and an appropriate choice need to be made to achieve desired efficiency, latency and other needs.
  • Application Complexity - An enterprise is likely to have a portfolio of applications within and outside to integrate with. The complexity of the applications would have a direct influence on the design and architecture of the integration solution as well. A thorough study and evaluation of the applications is a must to come up with a good integration solution.

As you know the above is not an exhaustive list and there are various other business and IT Drivers that need consideration. In addition, the quality attributes like security, availability, performance, maintainablity, extendability etc that need consideration in choosing a right design and architecture for the application integration solution. I would be writing another blog on Quality of Service (QoS) considerations for Application Integration solutions.