Time To Make The 'Enterprise' Transition?

By Scott Robinson

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While the word gets thrown around a lot to describe big companies, the definition of 'enterprise', in architecture terms, is ultimately about how you handle your company's databases and distributed systems. Making the transition to an enterprise-type architecture is basically a decision to rebuild your company's database infrastructure, and more importantly, the way your people think about information.

Martin Sheen, playing the President in an episode of "The West Wing," made the statement that "All government can really do is collect money and distribute it." Oversimplified, maybe, but there's a lot of truth in that perspective. Similarly, when you strip away the frills, all IT really does is store data and access it.

That, too, is an oversimplification, but one which contains some profound insight. While interfaces, communications, security and other IT concerns have a huge impact on your company's ability to function, you can fall short in any of these areas and still do business.

Information Is The Business

But how your company's information is captured, organized, and accessed is the single biggest discriminator of business functionality. In today's climate, virtually no employee can perform well without solid IT support. Information is our most important tool, our principle strategic concern.

Enterprise showcases this truth. Far more than a buzzword, enterprise is a set of philosophical and operational precepts that redefine the manner in which information is employed in business. It is about much more than software; it's about re-thinking the role information plays in the day-to-day workings of the company, down to the lowest and most detailed level. And if you're re-thinking how you use information, you're re-thinking how you use databases.

In this three-part series, we'll explore how the foundations of IT must change during the enterprise transition, and the changes that must occur in database design and administration in particular.How's The Weather?

Is it time for enterprise? And, more importantly, are you ready for it? The internal and external signs that your company needs to evolve in this direction will be examined in detail in an upcoming article, but here are some key indicators:

  • Speed and reliability of data have become the critical factors in your company's competitive performance. Good information has always been important, but now your market position and customer relationships hinge on the accuracy and timeliness of your responsiveness, which in turn requires on-demand decision-making based on supporting data of unprecedented reliability.
  • Employees increasingly require real-time information, where periodic batch systems once sufficed. In the frenetic pace of today's business environment, there is little time for command-chain protocols and hierarchical deliberation. More and more decisions are placed in the hands of your front-line people -- and they need information at their fingertips in order to function well. They can't wait on Wednesday's batch run; they need the information on the screen when they get the call.
  • Decision support requirements allow less time for deliberation and less room for error. In the past, intuitive management and a play-it-by-ear approach had their place. Today, that's not so much the case, because when a management-level mistake occurs, there is less time to go back and take another stab at it. Now more than ever, you have to guess right the first time.
  • Communication with your customers and partner companies needs to be multi-modal if you are to survive. Your customers have more and more choices. Why? The internet. Your business partners are forming increasingly intimate alliances, and expect you to commit more deeply (and with greater versatility) to supply chain requirements. Why? The internet. If you aren't exploring extended and distributed applications, you're going to disenchant them all. And you can bet your competitors will be pleased to see you do so.
  • Departmental boundaries, once functional discriminators, are now barriers to data access. The marketplace moves faster than it ever did. You no longer have time to send your work across the hall. You need to know what the people in accounting know, and you don't have time to ask.
  • If this sounds like your world, then it's time to consider enterprise -- and that means it's time to look at your database world, and begin to re-imagine it.

    The Ties That Bind

    Every indicator above points to changes that need to occur in your IT world, and all of those changes -- even the development of an Internet presence -- impacts your company's database configuration and administration. Committing to enterprise means a commitment to re-engineer your company's data storage and access. Here are the main considerations.

  • Integration: Inter-departmental reporting and decision support require the ability to pull information from multiple databases in a single query. You must design for this, providing well-structured querying and the necessary efficiency tuning and table structures.
  • Flexibility: Tables will often need to be smaller, more focused, containing less extraneous information -- but must also have versatile indexing and clean, fast query pathways. Set aside adequate time for table re-design.
  • New data sources: It won't surprise you to learn that a lot of decision support in your rapidly-changing company is coming from data sources beyond your current IT domain. Find out where the data is and find ways to get it into your decision support applications. It will do much to serve your ultimate goal of putting mission-critical information into the right hands in real time. Design your databases is such a way that you can integrate such information with minimal grief.
  • New data structures: Implementing enterprise may mean moving to an object-oriented application platform, with business object databases. This is a huge transition, as indexing for an object database is worlds different from RDBMS (relational database management systems) indexing. This subject is so important and has such impact that it will be the subject of an article in itself in this series.
  • Process tracking/analysis: A continuous process evolution is a hallmark of enterprise. Your systems must not only evolve, they must be designed in such a way that they can continue to do so smoothly, year-in-and-year-out. To achieve this, it's important to be able to track the movement of data from database server to application and across company boundaries, etc. You'll need mechanisms to enable this kind of tracking.
  • User access/security: More users are going to need more ways into your data. You are looking at web servers to interface with the outside world; application servers to accommodate those in-house; and more portals than you ever dreamed of to make the whole mess fly.

    Moreover, you are entering into a business environment that will include outsiders needing your core data. This isn't just a matter of establishing tighter security; you must also set up appropriate tables to accommodate your external users, and means by which they can get to the data they need in real time.

  • Moreover, you are entering into a business environment that will include outsiders needing your core data. This isn't just a matter of establishing tighter security; you must also set up appropriate tables to accommodate your external users, and means by which they can get to the data they need in real time.

  • Application integration support: Another feature of enterprise is the integration of legacy apps with new apps. In database terms, you will now have database servers that once passed data to legacy apps now passing data to middleware programs rather than users, to combine the data with results from newer programs on other servers. Why is this a consideration? Because legacy database code that once interacted slowly but adequately with a user must now interact rapidly with a program that interacts with still more programs in order to interact with the user. Bottom line: the old stuff now needs to be faster.
  • Distributed transaction support: In pre-enterprise environments, you have multiple servers that each cater to particular aspects of business, each pretty much doing its thing. In the distributed transaction universe, these databases need to talk to each other, all the time and with great efficiency. The reconfiguration of your various servers into an enterprise business domain is such an important topic that it will be the subject of an upcoming article.
  • It's Their Data

    In 1987, the company I was working for at the time shipped me off to database administrator school in Atlanta. The one thing I remember clearly from that class was a debate between the class and the instructor over the question of knowing what was best for the user, where database design was concerned. We, the students, were somewhat patronizing on this point, as you might guess. The instructor's response, however, was absolute: "It's their data."

    Now, at that time I'd been in the business about six years, and I had a very territorial view of things (and most of my colleagues have shared this somewhat skewed view). The data, the databases, the applications, and even the terminals that employees used were really part of my domain, and IT graciously permitted them access.

    But this is ultimately a very wrong-headed way to think, especially in this very user-driven IT landscape. We are service providers, nothing more, nothing less. The data belongs to the users. By extension, the databases are theirs, and like their houses or cars or the chairs they sit in all day, must be very specifically suited to their needs.

    The user is no longer passive in your redesigned data universe. Not only is the user now prominent in application development, the user is becoming a full partner in application design -- and, alongside the customer and business partner, the ultimate determinant of appropriate database design. As you consider the enterprise, you must reposition the role of your users in your thinking -- and understand that the user is the voice that must be heard as you put data storage and access back on the drawing board.

    Roll Your Own?

    When making the enterprise decision, it's natural to consider the ERP software/service providers, such as SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, etc. They rightly market not only the software to integrate and/or replace your existing core systems, they also sell you the people to run them -- freeing up your in-house crew to focus on those IT aspects of your company's business that differentiate it. Better for you, better for your IT people, better for everyone -- and expensive as hell.

    If you can't afford the pricey decision to bring in an enterprise provider, don't despair. It's possible to create the enterprise in-house, and to do it economically. The many decisions, methods, tools and considerations you'll encounter in taking such a road are the on-going subject of this series.

    Scott Robinson is an enterprise software and systems consultant with Quantumetrics, Inc., a consultant's collaborative. Robinson has worked with such well known organizations as the Dept. of Defense (DOD), Dept. of Energy (DOE), Wal-Mart, and Roche Pharmaceuticals. He is also a regular contributor to TechRebpublic and can be reached at (812) 989-8173, or by email at drscottrobinson@att.net.