Speaking in Tongues

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'Instead of managing code, in the future we'll be managing business processes.'

'Chris Fornecker, chief technology officer, GSA

Rick Steele

"Instead of managing code, in the future we'll be managing business processes,' promised Chris Fornecker, chief technology officer of the General Services Administration. Fornecker was revealing the agency's plans to streamline its IT architecture at the recent Service Oriented Architecture for Government conference in Washington.

GSA is not alone in its quest to free itself from the intricacies of technology. The IT department for the Albuquerque, N.M., site of the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories has renamed its 'network operations center' the 'systems operations center.' A small name change, sure, but one that represents a big shift in thinking. That thinking represents an attempt to better align systems with the missions they support by approaching IT as something other than technology. The result should be better service to end users.

When the help desk receives a complaint that the network is running slowly, where does the IT staff look for the problem? Is it in the database, the network or the server running the program? Can staffers even tell which server in the data center is running sluggishly? These are the types of questions Sandia hopes to answer more easily.

'Because the enterprise service offerings are so complex today, we're just not able to manage them as elements. We're forced to manage them from a business perspective,' said Sandia IT manager Judy Chavez. 'Now we are taking a business perspective in attempting to do enterprise management. We wanted to create situational awareness across the enterprise.'

No doubt about it, IT is complicated, with its endless metrics and technical jargon. Losing sight of the forest for the trees is a problem common to everyone from program managers to system administrators. As a result, organizations are attempting to simplify IT.

'We're seeing a fundamental shift occurring, from component views to unified service views,' said Guy John Dailey, director of data center product management for Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Business intelligence and executive dashboard software have long made sense of reams of data collected in databases, but until recently, little was done with operational data'the maintenance logs and program code generated by IT equipment itself. And that's a shame, because operational data can be a source of valuable intelligence.

BSM: Redfining IT services

Now things are changing. A wave of newly emerging technologies, most notably business service management software and the Business Process Execution Language, help translate operational data into more understandable'and useful'information.

At Sandia, Chavez's group wants to anticipate problems and solve them before they get too serious. With the kind of complex, multitiered applications Sandia runs, it is very difficult to pinpoint the root cause of a service outage. An administrator has to check through all the components that run an operation as quickly as possible.

To simplify the process, the team is defining services as the focus of operations, rather than focusing on the individual components that are the concern of traditional network management. Confusing? Not necessarily.

The group picks a service, e-mail for example, that it wants to watch closely, then tracks down each component the e-mail service uses, such as databases, storage arrays and messaging software. Each of these components can be probed periodically to see how well it is performing. Are the servers running? How fast do they respond to requests? At Sandia, the results of these tests are compiled in a program called Netcool, a suite of software from Micromuse Inc. of San Francisco.

Netcool is a business service management application. It is different from standard network monitoring software, such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView or IBM Corp.'s Tivoli, in that it packages metrics in terms of how well the overall service, in this case e-mail, is running, rather than how well each of the supporting components is performing. Companies such as BMC Software are also focusing on BSM, and even long-established network management vendors, including HP and IBM, have added BSM modules to their suites.

'We have to start evolving IT from technology focus to a business focus,' said Ric Telford, IBM's vice president for autonomic computing architecture and development. 'Originally, IT was all about resource management. You have IT resources and you did management. [Services] management helps bring together the top-end view.' Such views can help solve problems more quickly, he said.

Although this approach is fairly new in the IT community, the business management community has practiced it for a while, Telford said. Corporate consultants have been stressing the value of clearly defining business services. Once you describe something like 'processing a mortgage application' as a series of discrete steps, you can take a look at each step when the process fails or to improve performance.

This approach can go beyond simply monitoring the performance of a service. Spearhead Innovations of Arlington, Va., has developed a unique way of re-interpreting network operational data that allows agencies to watch for events of interest.

'We look at tens of thousands of sources and look for anything that has changed, updated or is different,' said Chip Block, president and CEO of Spearhead. A remote sensor may send images out when some motion happens in its range of view. Spearhead's Enterprise Elucidator product, nicknamed Lucy, does not intercept the image, but it alerts the appropriate people that an image has been sent.

'It monitors all of the network, and if anything changes, then an update would be sent,' Block said. Unlike network monitoring tools, the software searches for items of semantic interest, rather than just logging operational data.

Lucy was developed in-house, though the company received research funding from the Defense Department's Horizontal Fusion program to help develop the software for net-centric operations. A field command can issue an order to the system to send notifications whenever a sensor in a certain radius sends off new data, alerting the command of enemy movements or some other item of interest. But the system can also be used to sense network events.

The EA connection

Defining IT equipment in terms of the services it provides can also help with other tasks, such as detailing an enterprise architecture and composing workflows.

Troux Technologies Inc. sells software that presents a visual model of all the IT assets in an organization. Using actual inventories of IT equipment, it allows managers to quickly view which pieces of equipment are supporting which missions, or business services. The software can even populate an enterprise architecture with a list of the agency's current equipment.

'It ties all the pieces together, so that you have a view of how you are doing business today,' said Bob Daniel, practice director for enterprise business architecture for the Austin, Texas-based company.

Today, there is no shortage of software to manage a list of IT assets. A program such as Opsware Asset Management or IBM's Tivoli can discover and list all the devices working on a network. Troux's software takes the next step. It extracts asset information and visually models it in a variety of perspectives. Managers then can create what-if scenarios, moving the equipment around on the screen to see what effect, say, adding a new service would have on an existing infrastructure. Or to find out what users might be affected if a certain server were taken offline for maintenance.

BPEL: Business managers go IT

As long as IT can be described it terms of business processes, the next logical step is to let business organizations'the folks that use IT to accomplish the agency's mission'define the IT.
One of the holy grails of software development has always been to make a programming language so easy that non-programmers could develop applications with it. That way, those who knew the organization best, the domain experts, could write programs instead of leaving it to a programmer who knew nothing of how an office might work.

While such a programming language remains a pipe dream, vendors of workflow software are doing the next best thing. They are creating programs that allow non-techies to visually cobble together processes from smaller, predefined components. The software defines a list of services an organization's IT equipment and software offers, and places them on a palette the domain expert can use to construct workflows.

'You could codify any sort of organized activity as long as you define things in terms of business rules,' said Tom Congoran, vice president of business development at Pegasystems Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a maker of software that translates managers' workflows into Java code. Adobe Systems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., has introduced LiveCycle Workflow server software that allows managers to create automated routes for Portable Document Format-based forms. A program manager can define who sees a document, what fields each participant should enter into the document, what route through the network the form should take, and what each participant's deadline is for completing his or her portion of the document. Best of all? No programming chops required.

'It abstracts away the complexity of the programming to a single point-and-click user interface,' said Steve Rotter, Adobe senior product manager.

Such software can rely heavily on Web services, providing a way for small programs'services'to be described and made available on a network. The emerging Business Process Execution Language provides a standard grammar for defining a workflow.

Last summer, when Oracle Corp. gave users the first glimpse of its next-generation enterprise resource planning platform'the one that will replace PeopleSoft'it said it would use BPEL to glue components together.

Like many enterprise software vendors, Oracle stressed how its software could support a service-oriented architecture. An SOA is a simply an architectural blueprint that an organization can use to share services across different departments.

A typical ERP implementation might have services for accounts receivable or accounts payable.
Oracle plans to offer even more fine-grained services, breaking an entity such as accounts payable into even smaller standalone processes. The upside is that it allows program managers to assemble customized ERP services.

Oracle software will make it very easy to 'string these components together ... so you can pick and choose the components that will make up a particular business flow,' said Jim Wakefield, an enterprise solution architect for the database company.

Like an HTML Web page, a BPEL process resides on a plain-text file and can be composed with a simple text editor. But that's not where the action is. In much the same way that HTML provided the foundation upon which more advanced and easier-to-use graphical Web design tools could be built, BPEL stands to spawn products that will allow users to compose applications without mucking with source code. A BPEL process engine can read the BPEL file and execute the appropriate tasks in the correct order.

Oracle saw the need to make its BPEL engine easy to use for non-developers, said John Deeb, product management director for the Oracle Fusion platform.

'People who aren't seasoned, who aren't strong coders, will be able to build and orchestrate services. You don't need to know BPEL to use the tool,' Deeb said.

With tools such as BPEL and BSM, the power of IT may not be limited to network administrators and programmers. Now it can be in the hands of the people who use it most'the end users.

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