Are open systems the answer?

Conventional wisdom holds that an open systems approach solves information
technology problems, but implementing the systems takes a lot of work, an open systems
expert said recently.


“The open systems approach is a tool, not a silver bullet,” said Patricia A.
Oberndorf, a staff member at the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering
Institute.


But despite the hard work, developing an open systems environment makes good business
sense, Oberndorf said.


“You have to see benefits over the lifetime and across programs. This is a
long-term business strategy for how you’re going to run your operations,” she
said.


Oberndorf defined open systems as a collection of components that have been designed
around a specific mission. The interactions among the components must be fully defined,
available to the public and maintained according to a group consensus, she said. The
implementations of the individual components must then comply to those established
specifications, she added.


Open systems do not constitute a plug-and-play environment, she said during the General
Services Administration’s Architecture Plus Seminar Series last month in Washington.
And commercial software, for example, is by definition not open. Nor is an open system
necessarily interoperable, she said.


Agencies face a dilemma: They want adaptable, interoperable and reliable systems, but
they don’t want to pay for those benefits, she said.


Agencies that move to open systems can take advantage of the marketplace, Oberndorf
said.


Many IT managers favor open systems, she said, but added the caveat, “as long as
you do everything my way.”


Open systems are based on standards that provide protection if a vendor goes out of
business, she said. Standards lessen the likelihood that an organization will be left out
on its own, she said.


Accredited standards organizations aren’t the only sources for open systems
standards, she said. Industry associations, government officials, professional
associations, business consortia and academic researchers are just as capable of writing
standards, she said.


A shift to an open systems environment can lead to sociological and organizational
changes within organizations. “All of these things have an impact on your
organization and people. If you do not recognize that, you will fail,” she said. That
makes it imperative that everyone involved understands open systems, she said.


A widespread misconception is that open systems reduce costs, she said. “The only
thing I can promise you is that your cost curves will change,” Oberndorf said. The
initial costs could increase, but the cumulative lifecycle costs could decrease, she said.


Savings depend on the breadth of the application, the economies of scale in the initial
and recurring costs, as well as development, and the number of ways the costs can be
shared, she said.


Saving money cannot be the only reason to move to open systems, she said. Agencies also
must measure improved performance costs, among other factors.


Open systems permit continuous change. “The ‘system is done now’ concept
doesn’t work any more,” she said. Organizations should regularly evaluate, test
and conduct market research on their open systems.


“Open systems mitigate some of your risks but not all of them,” she said.


Good management practices are critical when handling open systems environments, she
said. With an open systems environment, an educated management team is crucial to keeping
IT staff confident. “You need that support,” she said.


Agencies should make small changes to processes and identify and manage risks, she
said. “Start small and learn as you go,” Oberndorf said.

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