The IT industry loves seismic changes in technology architectures. In the 1990s, there was object-oriented programming. Later Service Oriented Architecture and the Enterprise Service Bus were built on these principles but brought them together in a new way, and more recently the same has happened with microservices and containerization .
All have tried to make it easier for software developers to compose their enterprise application stack, so that an organization is not locked into a particular application and can choose the best components to solve particular business problems.
This has led to a drastic increase in the number of applications that organizations use. “Over the past 10 years, our customers have, on average, increased the number of enterprise applications from 80 to more than 700,” said Emma McGuigan, head of enterprise technology and industry at Accenture.
The reason for this growth is that many software vendors offer cutting-edge or niche applications that address particular business challenges. “We need to seize the opportunity these small application providers present,” adds McGuigan.
The business mantra of today is one of agility. In this context, the IT sector is uniting around the concept of composable business. Accenture urges CIOs and CTOs to champion composable technology by configuring and reconfiguring business-critical applications, while ensuring interoperability.
But traditional enterprise systems approaches have made composability difficult. According to Nick Jewell, technology evangelist at Incorta, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are, to some extent, the antithesis of this composable model.
“ERP systems are large, monolithic platforms that govern critical business processes such as order management, transaction processing, or supply chain operations execution,” he says. “Extracting data from such complex platforms often involves significant IT investments in data architecture, such as extract, transform, and load (ETL) tools to move, transform, and deliver Data in a usable form for analysis and data-driven decision making Warehouses to retain that data over time.
With composable computing, the goal should be to integrate ERP data with other technology solutions so that the business can benefit from it more quickly. According to a recent survey conducted by Censorwide for Rimini Street of 503 CIOs and 503 CTOs, 84% plan to invest in a composable ERP in 2023. CIOs (83%) and CTOs (85%) are enthusiastic about the idea to invest. The survey shows that IT leaders in manufacturing (93%) have the greatest commitment to composable ERP, while utilities (23%) have the least.
Research from analyst Gartner shows that by 2024, 70% of large and midsize businesses will include composability in their approval process for new applications. For Gartner, this means using an enterprise IT architecture for business applications based on modular building blocks.
According to Gartner, one of the key differentiators of the composable enterprise experience is that application design and redesign is done with direct input from business and technology professionals. This suggests that sales and IT should work in tightly integrated teams.
Damian Smith is CTO at Podium Analytics, a non-governmental organization and charity founded by former McLaren Group chief Ron Dennis in 2019, which aims to reduce injuries in sport.
Podium Analytics collects data using an app that records injuries in school and club sports. In September 2022, it introduced a tool based on the Concussion Recognition Tool (CRT5), a Concussion in Sport Group protocol designed to help non-medically trained individuals identify suspected concussions. The app provides guidance for removing a player from the game and seeking medical assistance.
One of the benefits of a composable model for businesses is increased flexibility. It works at different levels. Podium Analytics uses Outsystems’ low-code platform to provide this flexibility. Although it outsources software development, the platform allows Podium Analytics to retain ownership of the generated code.
By using a low-code platform, Podium Analytics gains business agility. It can introduce more developers or replace its existing outsourced software development provider much more easily. “Low code allows another developer to pick up someone else’s work very quickly without all the archeology involved in trying to figure out what’s in the code,” he says.
The essence of agility
An application is actually used to solve a business problem based on the data it has access to. Explaining how an IT manager can apply this when building an enterprise software portfolio, Accenture’s McGuigan says, “It’s less about comparing one enterprise software vendor to another. Instead, she says CIOs looking at their business as a whole should consider having a strategy that gives them the ability to unlock data housed in hundreds of applications.
As an example, Smith says Podium Analytics may decide it needs to create a new app to allow a coach or teacher to log a particular type of sports injury. “We’re going to create an app that will allow them to do that,” he says. “They can then record those injuries and we have data coming in. At some point in the future there might be a better way to collect that data, but we don’t really mind that.”
Such a strategy can be applied to the entire technological infrastructure on which companies rely. The theory behind the composable enterprise is that each component of the architecture can be replaced as needed. Giving an example of how this can work, Smith says, “We use a CRM [customer relationship management] system, but we don’t know which one we use. I don’t care because they all pretty much do the same thing.
If at some point Podium Analytics decides to change CRM provider, the main task will be to migrate the data to the new system. Smith’s vision of the composable enterprise is that it should look like a Lego brick model, allowing IT decision makers to choose the module they need to build their IT architecture. “I should be able to remove one and install another without disrupting the business too much,” he says.
An agile software development methodology goes hand in hand with a composable business strategy because it allows business leaders to quickly bring new ideas to market, test if they work, and modify them if necessary. Podium Analytics’ development methodology is based on a four-week sprint cycle.
Describing the software development process, Smith of Podium Analytics explains that Outsystems uses flowcharts, which allow the programmer to describe what is presented to the user, what happens to the data entered and what screens are then displayed. Even if there’s no formal documentation, he says, it’s easy to see what’s going on in a piece of code.
Cherry Picking Components
With the advent of software as a service, Smith says there are many opportunities to evaluate top products that have the potential to perform extremely well in certain business processes. “Why should I bother doing a massive ERP implementation when I can just take one of these products and plug it into our IT architecture so all the components can work together beautifully at a fraction of the cost?”
This strategy allows IT managers to take advantage of the best technology available from established software vendors or startups. But, says Smith, if you choose to take this approach, you need to be really aware of your exit strategy. “If something better comes along, or if we argue with the existing supplier, we just want to remove that Lego brick and put another one in its place,” he adds.
The question IT managers need to ask themselves is how easily they can export data from their existing vendor systems and whether that data is in a format that the business can easily use. Smith says this policy is fundamental to Podium Analytics’ procurement process and is one of the reasons he chose Outsystems over other low-code platform vendors.
In these uncertain times, Emmanuelle Hose, Managing Director EMEA at Rimini Street, says companies don’t want to be locked into one way of doing things. They need, she says, the ability to be much more agile, and that’s changing their approach to digital transformation. “You have to have the flexibility to change very quickly because of the economic challenges.”
To avoid bottlenecks and get the most out of existing and new data sources, IT managers need an enterprise architecture that can support the business in an ever-changing environment and can react quickly to changes. . From an IT perspective, this is the goal of a composable enterprise software strategy. However, this agility comes at a cost: it adds complexity, and IT departments will likely have to spend more time managing relationships with multiple vendors.