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11 September 2012

The new architecture

By Andrew Clifford

To create the next generation of IT architecture we need to think beyond our current engineering mindset.

Historically there have been many constraints on IT. Computers used to be very much slower and very much more expensive. Physical resources, such as disk, memory and network, were always in short supply. Programming was very labour-intensive.

IT architecture has largely been an attempt to create effective engineering solutions to overcome these constraints. There have been huge improvements in the cost and speed of hardware. We have created technical solutions to the hardest parts of IT, such as databases, development environments and middleware. We have created shared, layered, virtualized architectures to make the best use of expensive resources. We have built up hugely functional operating systems with a wealth of modules to make it easy to reuse work that has gone before.

There are now many fewer constraints on IT. We can create highly-performant, fully-functional environments at the press of a button. We can choose from vast libraries of pre-written software, including specialised system software such as databases and middleware. Networking is ubiquitous. Costs for all parts of IT have been falling for years.

We now have the opportunity to create new IT architectures based on what we really want, not on overcoming constraints. However, we IT professionals are not the best people to understand what the new architecture should look like. We are so steeped in the way things are currently done that we find it almost impossible to think differently. We have argued for so long for the architectures we have now that it is almost impossible for us to take the radical, bold steps that would make huge changes to IT.

I am as tainted by the past as anyone. I have a vision of what IT could be, but I fear it is still an engineering vision, based on overcoming constraints. My vision of the new architecture is one where we replace our major engineering structures with structures that align to the business organisation. In my vision, we do away with layered architectures in favour of independent, self-sufficient systems that fit within the boundaries of the organisation structure. Every system can support any sort of access, from any device, or from any other system, without additional layers. Functionality isn't hard coded into the system, but pre-written modules can be added to any system, or new functionality and data added in intuitive ways to the running system. All necessary controls, such as security and version management, are handled by the system themselves, but, like any other functionality, can be delegated to other systems if desired.

To create the next generation of architecture, we need to think outside of the engineering box. We need to imagine what computers could be without any constraints of performance, cost or capability. We need to think what would serve people well, but we also need to think what people can understand, manage and control. To really take IT forward, to create tomorrow's architectures, we need to see it as much more than just engineering.

Next: Enforcing data security

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