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6 December 2011

Universal business computer 1: The quest

By Andrew Clifford

The universal business computer is a quest for a better way to do IT.

Most of us have special interests in IT. Some follow the trends of ever-faster hardware. Others specialise in databases, or mobile devices, or graphics. Some are dedicated to service management. And so on.

One area has fascinated me for at least a couple of decades. I am not sure that there is a proper name for it, but I describe it as the quest for the universal business computer.

By my definition, the universal business computer is a standardised IT architecture which fully meets all non-functional requirements and which can deliver any business requirement. It is not a theoretical notion, but a practical quest, searching for and designing ways to get closer to this ideal. It is a "super design" that can be applied to meet many different needs. I want to know how close we can get to this ideal, rather than constantly re-designing solutions.

I can trace this interest back to different parts of my career. I have spent a lot of my time providing technical support for developers, setting up development environments, creating common code, managing standards, and so on. It struck me that most business requirements can be met by a standard set of technical features. There is a lot of unnecessary technical variation in solutions.

I have been influenced by working as an enterprise architect. Different people have different views of enterprise architecture. My view is that enterprise architecture is an extension to standards, setting down in practical terms how IT needs to be arranged in order to meet long-term business and IT management objectives. The specifics of business processes and applications are driven by short-term commercial, financial and political pressures. To me, the role of enterprise architecture is to create an environment in which IT can easily and safely respond to these transient and often conflicting requirements, rather than pretending that IT can somehow influence them or rationalise them away.

Another input is the interest I had thirty years ago in "home computing". What I noticed when I started work as a professional developer is that although professional development has many more resources, it is less responsive and less versatile. Once you have layered technologies, multiple specialists, and development disciplines, you lose the ability to just do what you want with the computer. (Though this is to an extent reversed by agile methods.)

My interest in minimal IT has also been an influence. Over the past few years, I have been looking at how structure and appropriate management can make order-of-magnitude improvements in simplicity and cost.

All of these come together in the universal business computer. It is a pragmatic quest for a standard IT architecture that is responsive, versatile, meets long-term management objectives, and is an order of magnitude simpler and cheaper than traditional approaches.

There are many paths on this quest. Over the next few weeks I want to lead you down the path I have taken, and share with you an architecture which comes tantalisingly close to this vision of the universal business computer.

Next: Universal business computer 2: Architecture

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