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IT Complexity

As you might imagine, our impending acquisition by Software AG has meant a change in routine for many of us as we work through the mechanics of bringing the companies together, and one of the consequences has been a deficit of blogging time. I’m not expecting things to get any less busy, but I do anticipate being able to post regularly again within the next couple of week and to start sharing perspectives on what the deal with Software AG all means.

Anyway, I was talking with a reporter yesterday about an SOA vendor guide that his publication is putting together, and as we covered the various angles of what constitutes SOA and what technologies are involved, I got thinking about whether people – IT professionals in particular -- feel IT is becoming more or less complex (in truth, because I wondered how anyone but an IT person could follow our conversation).

Certainly, one of SOA’s promises is to reduce complexity – through standardization of approach, technology, and, to some extent, normalization of application functionality into business services – but the actual act of “doing SOA” comes with its own complexities. Some of this is learning curve, to the extent that SOA entails doing some things differently from before, but other aspects are inherent in the SOA model and the increase in the number of moving parts in the IT environment. On balance, it’s debatable whether reducing complexity in one area offsets the complexity acquired in another area. Personally, I think the organizations that will reap the benefits of SOA’s architectural elegance will be the ones that do a good job of managing the accompanying IT process complexity through strong governance, dependency and change management, and mature development practices. Companies that don’t have these disciplines – or the intention to develop them – might want to rethink their SOA plans.

But SOA aside, is IT getting simpler or more complex? By most observations, complexity seems to be rocketing skyward. The data center is certainly more diverse than before, with more and more hardware, operating system, application, and software infrastructure variations jostling for space on the floor. Development tools and technologies are proliferating faster than ever, with Ruby on Rails, PHP, AJAX, and other frameworks entering the camp alongside Java and Microsoft’s technologies. And every few months, architects are asked to weigh the latest development that promises to revolutionize IT like never before – open source, software-as-a-service, Web 2.0, and, yes, SOA. Within a microcosm, like developing a Web application, it might be easier to get some something done than before, but the connectedness of today’s IT environment and the need to fill ever more gaps within the business means there are more and more microcosms and dependencies to deal with.

So the question isn’t really whether IT is getting more complex – it is – but whether the pace can continue unchecked. Clearly, the answer is that it can’t. Budget is a constraining factor – if you can’t afford a new technology, then you spare yourself the accompanying complexity – but at some point IT decision-makers have to proactively manage and contain complexity so that it doesn’t spiral out of control. Just like a sprawling supply chain reaches a point of diminishing returns, a sprawling IT portfolio eventually starts to suffocate under its own weight. Of course, companies are already dealing with this to some extent, but I believe that it will become a significantly greater issue in the decades ahead.

On the vendor side of things, this creates tremendous opportunity. Being less complex than the competitors – easier to understand, easier to use, easier to manage, and all the other things that might entail – is a big differentiator and will become increasingly important moving forward. Someday, “complexity” will be a standard line-item on the matrices that companies use to compare technology suppliers.

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