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The diminishing business decision cycle

E-commerce is no longer a choice


Today's Business Environment Means Constant Change
In today's world the business decision cycle is constantly getting shorter and takes place in an environment of continual change. To compete successfully, modern companies must rapidly adapt to changing market conditions. Decision making in close to real time is becoming the norm as competitive product offerings are constantly improved in order to gain market share. A number of factors drive this diminishing of the decision horizon.

The explosion of electronic business transactions.
With the coming of Internet based commerce the already large number of electronic business transactions is set to increase exponentially and with it the immediate availability of large volumes of market data. The term 'transaction' is used here to denote any activity which occurs on the Internet, be it an enquiry for information such as a stock price, or the purchase of goods where the transaction involves checking against the inventory, transferring funds from a bank and arranging shipping of the goods to the customer. The speed at which this information is captured, analysed and fed back into manufacturing, shipping, billing and marketing activities is what gives a company its competitive edge. As information volumes increase there is no time to trawl through it all to spot significant business events, yet key decision makers need to be alerted to them immediately.

The implosion of time to market.
New and improved products must be brought to market quickly to stay ahead of competitors, and the supply chain must be streamlined to support the just in time (JIT) inventories now maintained by suppliers. This contraction of the product delivery pipeline further shrinks the time available for making business decisions.

Products are computer based.
As we move towards an information based service economy the products offered are frequently software based, such as financial, travel and media services. Even where physical products are involved the manufacturing process is likely to be computer controlled. Thus the speed at which new products can be created and existing products improved is approaching electronic levels. For example the Benetton chain of clothes stores is famous for its ability to rapidly alter its production schedule ("more green sweaters please") in response to customer sales data from its outlets.

Businesses are becoming more customer facing.
Corporations are rushing to be more customer facing and customer transactions are the key information resource, with their timely analysis being critical to staying ahead of the competition. Ironically many businesses find this extremely difficult due to the product based nature of their IT systems. Many insurance systems, for instance, are policy based and cannot easily produce a list of all the policies an individual customer holds. With the increasing use of call centres to gain competitive advantage such failures to provide integrated customer data cannot be tolerated.

All these factors lead to the ever tighter inter-dependency and integration of the business decision cycle and require equivalent levels of integration and inter-operation in the supporting IT systems.

Adding to the pressure created by the integration of the decision cycle is the changing environment within which companies are struggling to achieve the integrated IT processes necessary to support it. Two factors in particular create this changing environment and cause integration problems.

Technology Dependence.
The key to successfully managing the shrinking decision cycle is the rapid availability of business information and the ability to analyse and act on it equally quickly. It is only via highly performant computer technology that this can be achieved and so the dependence of successful businesses on reliable computer technology becomes ever greater. In the technology marketplace the desire to satisfy these dependency driven demands promotes rapid technological innovation and the decision cycle shortens even further as all the processes involved move towards electronic speed. However, frequent changes to the technology platform supporting the decision cycle, can be highly disruptive with wrong technology choices being very costly, since poorly performing systems lose business.

Frequent corporate restructuring.
The current business environment seemingly encourages frequent corporate restructuring whether caused by mergers and acquisitions, or simply the re-positioning of a company around its core competencies. In these circumstances the clash of competing technologies can lead to damaging delays in the integration of the business decision cycle. Frequently the clash of technologies is a reflection of competing corporate cultures and job security issues which practically achieve the status of a religious war. Failure to integrate multiple competing technologies can further disrupt the business.

Thus, ironically, as businesses become ever more dependent on technology to support the integration of the business decision cycle they also need to somehow decouple themselves from it. In particular businesses must minimise the disruptive effects of the rapid technology changes taking place and the diverse technological environment in which they operate.

Business Needs Are Driving Technology Trends
To cope with the ever increasing demands of the business environment and the integration needs it creates numerous technology trends are now emerging. A core set of these trends is now well established.

Component based applications.
The move is away from monolithic end-to-end applications and towards replaceable, reusable components. Scarce company IT resources need to be focused on core business functionality otherwise it's 'buy donŐt build', with best of breed components selected for each specific need. Software components offer functionality in an open fashion via published interfaces, or messages, to allow their integration via plug and play mechanisms. The appearance of software components can be viewed as part of the incremental move towards object based computing. However, business critical legacy systems cannot simply be discarded but must also be made available as components whenever possible. Wrapper technology has emerged that allows closed proprietary functionality to be integrated into plug and play environments.

Mixed application server platforms.
Departments may occasionally be single platform but enterprises are not, they are multi-platform. A variety of hardware, operating system releases, databases, object standards and user interface devices must be integrated.

Proliferation of user interface devices.
As programmable logic becomes ubiquitous the range of user interface devices is expanding. Network computers, Web browsers, kiosk technology, NetPCs, PCs, Automated Teller Machines, TV set-top boxes, Palm-based technology, mobile phones, interactive voice response units and dumb terminals, are now all in use.

Creation of information resources.
The separation of processing and data storage is giving way to the provision of pre-processed data via application interface mechanisms. This trend creates information resources which become components in the enterprise infrastructure and which hide their implementation details. This too is part of the move towards a more object oriented model.

Wide variety of information resources.
With implementation details hidden behind the information resource interfaces many different foundations may underlie them including traditional file systems, on-line databases, data warehouses, legacy applications, application packages (such as SAP) and real-time data feeds.

Synchronisation of information resources.
In an environment where multiple different information resources co-exist their synchronisation is critical if accurate data is to be maintained.

User notification (so much data so little time).
As information overload becomes a real possibility and the decision cycle continues to diminish many users simply do not have the time to seek out significant information. Push technology, sometimes called publish and subscribe event brokers, and intelligent agents all exist in order to notify users when something of interest happens.

Scaleable architectures.
With the arrival of Internet commerce, the user community accessing a resource is potentially open-ended. Once a system is opened up to the Web the user community may be measured in the millions. Three tier and multi-tier software architectures allow the multiplexing of large numbers of users into information resources via the thin client/fat server model and pro-vide the ability to scale up applications while maintaining performance, which is a business necessity.

These trends all lead towards integrated highly scaleable, plug and play, cross platform, component based solutions and can be characterised as the coming of age of the client/server model. It has been described elsewhere (in 'The Essential Client/Server Survival Guide' by Orfali, Harkey, Edwards 1996) as 'intergalactic networking' or 'the second client/server revolution' where everything in the client/server world is sold 'a la carte'. It is in this diverse environment, that systems which can be integrated to support the business decision cycle, need to be implemented in a reliable, scaleable and flexible manner. The environment poses challenges but also offers solutions.

An E-Commerce Platform For Change Enabled Solutions
The challenge then is to deploy a flexible component based system, on a changing mixed-platform foundation, which supports the accelerating business decision cycle. Failures to do so have been well publicised and usually suffer from integration, scalability and inflexibility problems. It is now widely accepted that deploying flexible component based applications in a rapidly changing environment, requires a solid software infrastructure supporting a multi-tiered architecture.

There is now a common software architecture emerging from many corporate strategy groups and industry organisations looking at these issues. In this architecture a variety of information resources advertise business services through an information bus while thin client programs attach to the bus and access these services. The implementation details of the services by the information resources are completely encapsulated and hidden from the clients.

The main purpose of the infrastructure is to support a layered, scaleable software architecture of three tiers :

n an information access tier in which client processes can operate and gain access to the information bus while providing a user interface via a variety of devices

n an information bus through which information resources can advertise their business level services and through which the clients can make service requests

n an information resource tier in which business logic can be implemented that encapsulates, or 'front ends', different data and analytical resources and offers related business level services to the clients (or to the other information resources) via the information bus.

The key features provided by such infrastructures are :

n application partitioning (the separation of the user interface from the business logic)

n multiple client/server communication models for accessing the business logic

n component integration (a plug and play environment)

n data synchronisation

n the potential for enterprise level management standards support

n platform independence (by supporting components running on a variety of platforms)

It is in support of this kind of architecture that an e-commerce transaction platform has been developed by BEA Systems. In the early days of client/server many organisations attempted to implement their own platform with limited degrees of success. A implementation involves major development and maintenance efforts and can quickly drain resources from an organisation's core business. In today's IT marketplace of buy-don't-build, BEA's 'mature e-commerce transaction platform' is already available, providing all of the features described above. This platform enables organisations to manage their rapidly changing environment, whilst moving into new business market-places.

A complete solution to the problems caused by the shrinking business decision cycle, involves the use of an e-commerce transaction platform, to provide the necessary levels of integration and performance in supporting technology. If the systems demanded by today's business decisions are to be deployed successfully then a robust software is needed, and this is what BEA provides. BEA de-couples the application from the underlying platform and provides a measure of future proofing while the multi-tier architecture allows for scaling applications to meet ever higher business transaction rates.

During the short history of client/server computing, technology has evolved rapidly and has matured around a 3-tier (or multi-tier) architecture through which business level services are made available and presented to the end user. The next step in the evolution is towards the presentation of business objects and their business methods.

To create systems that will support the business decision cycle into the 21st century, the key architectural design point is the move to a multi-tier architecture. By introducing an e-commerce transaction platform into the implementation, a flexible, scaleable system will be created which can handle changes in the underlying technology changes, with minimum disruption and which can be scaled up to provide the increasing performance levels, remorselessly demanded by the accelerating business decision cycle. .

Garth Eaglesfield
BEA Systems


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