IT agility remains a collective figment of the imagination at some vendors' marketing departments rather than something which can actually be realised.
Industry analyst firm Gartner estimates that by 2008, over 60% of enterprises will use service-oriented architecture (SOA) as a guiding principle when creating essential software applications and business processes.
That's no pipedream. SOA is enabling businesses to increase their competitive advantage and build a sustainable business through accelerating innovation, capturing new revenue, developing operational efficiencies and empowering information workers.
"The ability to execute these strategies better and faster than competitors is critical to a company's success. Business processes are the key to unlocking the potential of these strategies and adapting to changing business needs for competitive differentiation," says Bernhard Braunegger, director of alliances and marketing at SAP.
Dubai e-government (DEG) agrees. It believes that with proper planning, it is possible to achieve the right amount of flexibility to meet changing needs and says it has achieved a high degree of flexibility with the infrastructure supporting its different portals.
The secret, it says, is to put down several design guidelines and principals set during its portal infrastructure design. DEG's IT infrastructure is flexible in various dimensions. Its servers, firewalls, switches, memory, and CPU can all be scaled up as and when the need arises. Such additions are said to entail minimal configuration changes to the existing portal infrastructure.
DEG has identified various layers of abstraction in its portal design and has implemented those layers to ensure independence among them - its SOA project, for example.
It has also implemented several synergistic services for various entities in the Government to use. These are modular building blocks implemented as reusable components.
"However, achieving such flexibility requires significant IT knowledge and also design complexity in the IT infrastructure," says Salem Khamis Al-Shair, director of eServices, DEG.
"Well-formulated IT processes and infrastructure complexity compromise flexibility in certain cases, however, bring sustainability and scalability," he warns.
At the end of every year, DEG decides on the initiatives and various activities that will be implemented during the subsequent year and turns them into actual well-defined projects along with resources and timelines. IT is part of this strategic planning process and participates in all the strategic and business decisions that DEG takes. This allows IT to plan its resources for the upcoming year.
Al-Shair believes SOA aids in the agility of information systems. "It is an essential component for high agility, however, it is not sufficient by itself," he says.
"Various other components of the IT infrastructure and architecture are needed to achieve IT agility. SOA helps in abstracting services and providing them in a technology and platform neutral manner. If implemented correctly, it also helps in aligning business and IT for sustainable services delivery," he adds.
The most important part of it all is that an organisations' IT infrastructures and information systems be aligned with the business needs.
"Business requirements should drive the IT requirements. Each organisation needs to have a clear and holistic view of its business and information requirements, which in turn drives the IT architecture and infrastructure requirements of the organisation. IT strategy, projects and operations management need to be aligned around the overall business needs of the organisation," he says, adding that vendors should let their IT departments come up with solutions.
When it comes to SOA, Sage's general manager, Mark van der Ven, believes that while it is a popular buzz phrase with many IT vendors pushing the concept as the foundation for a scalable, cost-effective IT infrastructure, he warns that any technology should serve the customer first and foremost.
He argues that while having a reliable, secure and efficient IT infrastructure in place is one crucial investment for any organisation, adding agility and scalability to that is quite another.
"As companies grow, they hire new staff, expand their offices and demand much more out of the technology they invest in. These increasing demands could lead to creating a complexity in the IT infrastructure, or taking what could be an unnecessary ‘rip and replace' measure. Management shouldn't have to be too concerned about re-investing in a business management solution to cater to organisational changes. Business management solutions today should be developed with growth, scalability and ultimately, extreme agility in mind. This is especially the case for the Middle East, where although adoption has increased tremendously over the past few years, businesses remain wary of significant IT investments," he says.
While Van der Ven warns users against buying software that is too comprehensive if they want to remain flexible, Braunegger, of SAP, the developer of what is considered the most comprehensive ERP software available today, says SAP's Enterprise SOA is a blueprint for creating a highly flexible IT landscape.
"It enables companies to rapidly respond to changing business requirement and competitive market dynamics, while maximising existing IT infrastructure and resources addressing key business requirements of organisations across the globe and across all industries. Enterprise SOA unleashes the untapped potential of existing business processes within and across company boundaries," he says.
He adds that two trends have begun to dominate the world of business: the accelerated speed of change due to globalisation and the need to change through differentiation.
"Companies today are finding that to successfully address these pressures they need to look outside their organisations and more effectively collaborate with their stakeholders. That demands IT to provide a flexible, adaptable and ever evolving infrastructure that allows continuous improvement without disruption to core processes," he says.
Flexibility, says Van der Ven, will be crucial for the Gulf as businesses become aggressively competitive, and free trade becomes an inevitability.
One person who is very much a part of the Gulf's aggressively competitive environment is Gadde Rao, IT manager at Dubai Refreshments who says that because his company has set growth business objectives for the company, IT has decided to invest ahead of the curve. It wants to be in a position to meet a changing and growing environment.
He believes SOA has an important part to play in all this: "It is very important, and SOA is kind of a hot topic. This gives more flexibility to your customers and suppliers. Sooner or later almost all applications will focus on SOA."
His advice to IT managers looking for agility is to have a clear and long vision related to the company vision.
"If the vision is clear then the IT manager will know exactly what he has to do," he says.
One of the company's strategies that Rao oversees is the unification of business units under one umbrella to enable greater data transparency. This has facilitated the analysis of data to a minute level to take quick, effective strategic decisions.
Getting the infrastructure right is what Khalid Khougali, head of IT, telecommunications and business at Sharjah Institute of Technology (SIT) maintains. The issue of strategic flexibility poses requirements on the IT capabilities to provide cost-effective, scalable IT infrastructures to enable the institute to design and implement new business process applications to respond to emerging business opportunities, he says.
In early 2004, the IT department began the process of aligning the information infrastructure with its new corporate strategy by uniting all of its vocational departments into a common technical strategy.
In 2005, the IT department started with the implementation of a new strategic infrastructure platform. With this platform, the Institute's main goal was to invest in an internal foundation to meet its strategic objectives.
In 2006, the Nortel implementation project started as an architecture project since the platform must fulfil an integral part of the future IT Institute architecture at business unit level.
SIT is also looking at implementing ITIL to aid business agility in the future, but first it has to educate its IT teams on ITIL process implementations.
He also believes an SOA approach can bring numerous benefits to an IT organisation and especially as IT agility is concerned.
"SOA delivers recompense by enabling flexible solutions and a high degree of influence made possible by the swift assembly of these services to craft new business functionality," he says.
However, he warns IT managers in the Middle East to spend their budgets wisely and avoid vendor hype.
"Many IT managers in the Middle East spend money on vendor hype and it's not difficult to locate around this region. Just have a look at the number of failed IT projects in the region," he says.
At CA, the vendor whose solutions are designed to support IT agility, Abdul Karim Riyaz, CA's regional director, storage and protection for the EMEA markets, says IT can be the enabler of business agility but like any other enabler it is only as good as the people that use it and the process that is built around it.
He argues that while agility might be considered a buzzword by some: "every buzzword is generated out of a new idea and a new strategy that is built upon fundamentally sound principles to create better value. It is up to the community, in this case the IT community, to make the buzzword a reality."
To make sure that IT can keep up with changes to the business, IT needs to look to some of the ideas that progressive businesses have put into practice to ensure better alignment between IT and business.
These include giving the CIO a seat on the board so as to get engaged in the business decisions and receives early warning in business directions, empowerment of middle level business managers to understand what technology is and how that contributes to the way they do business, the establishment of joint business-IT committees for each new project, close monitoring of the progress of IT makes versus defined business goals and education at every level on both business and IT aspects.
To ensure agility, Laurent Amestoy, regional general manager, R&M Middle East & Africa, says that companies should ensure the cabling solution implemented is well designed and suitable for the required applications, today and the foreseeable future to ensure success.
"A good quality and scalable cabling solution is a must to have flexibility in any network. Flexibility for us also means modularity. Ease of expansion is also a key for a good network or cabling solution," he says.
Faisal Khan, senior security consultant at McAfee Middle East says a firm's ability to adapt its IT capabilities to market changes is a crucial organisational capability. A lack of time, resources and budget, however, is making it difficult for CIOs to keep their IT set-up flexible enough to keep up with such changes.
"IT infrastructure needs to be in line with the business needs for an organisation. Nowadays, the infrastructure is normally over-heightened as IT managers want to have all types of different solutions in place, where the IT structure should be built for their specific business objectives," he says.
Extreme Networks, Chris Moore, regional director ME & Africa says that in an ever increasing global business environment IT agility is a must for any company.
He argues that the extent of IT managers' success in developing IT agility is indicated by the choices made for the network and which service level agreements are agreed with suppliers.
"IT managers have to choose between a single-vendor solution or an integrated best of breed solution made of open standards components from various suppliers. IT managers with agility in mind demand high levels of service from their vendors and are willing to budget for that support too," he says.
"We believe that a lot of choices are made based on brand - nobody is fired for buying. However, the circumstances in which IT managers make these decisions are strongly dictated by the purchasing procedures of the company in which they work."
His advice is to investigate the most time consuming activities in the network, look for automated solutions and avoid implementing protocols locking the IT manager to that vendor in the future.
As for the next issue the IT manager has to cope with, it is more of the same - but faster. "We anticipate that the change in business will continue to accelerate and that companies will need a stable and open platform that has the ability to support innovation," SAP's Braunegger concludes.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.