Is it time for a new Enterprise Architect?

After a short break to get some major dental rework done, I return to you with my new, sore mouth for a round of “Maybe we should have…” discussions.

In the nineties and early 21st century, positions were created in may organizations with titles like “chief architect” and often there was a group whose title were something like “IT Architect”. These people made decisions that impacted one or all subsidiaries of an organization, trying to bring standardization to systems that had grown organically and were terribly complex. They ushered in standards, shared code between disparate groups, made sure that AppDev and Network Ops and Systems Admins were all involved in projects that touched their areas. The work they did was important to  the organization, and truly different than what had come before. Just like in the 20th century the concept of a “Commander of Army Group” became necessary because the armies being fielded were so large that you needed an overall commander to make sure the pieces were working together, the architect was there (albeit with far less power than an Army Group commander) to make sure all the pieces fit together.

Through virtualization, they managed to keep the ball rolling, and direct things such that a commitment to virtualization was applied everywhere it made sense. Organizations without this role did much the same, but those with this role had a person responsible for making sure things moved along as smoothly as a major architecture change that impacts users, systems, apps, and networks can.

Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors

I worked on an enterprise architecture team for several years in the late 90s, and the work was definitely challenging, and often frustrating, but was a role (at least at the insurer I worked for) that had an impact on cutting waste out of IT and building a robust architecture in apps, systems, and networks. The problem was that network and security staff were always a bit distanced from architecture. A couple of companies whose architects I hung out with (Southwestern Bell comes to mind) had managed to drive deep into the decision making process for all facets of IT, but most of us were left with systems and applications being primary and having to go schmooze and beg to get influence in the network or security groups. Often we were seen as outsiders telling them what to do, which wasn’t the case at all. For the team we were on, if one subsidiary had a rocking security bit, we wanted it shared across the other subsidiaries so they would all benefit from this work the organization had already paid for. It was tough work, and some days you went home feeling as if you’d accomplished nothing. But when it all came together, it was a great job to have. You saw almost every project the organization was working on, you got to  influence their decisions, and you got to see the project implemented. It was a fun time.

Now, we face a scenario in networking and network architecture that is very similar to that faced by applications back then. We have to make increasingly complex networking decisions about storage, app deployment, load distribution, and availability. And security plays a critical role in all of these choices because if your platform is not secure, none of the applications running on it are.

We use the term “Network architecture” a lot, and some of us even use it to describe all the possibilities – Internal, SaaS providers, cross-datacenter WAN, the various cloud application/platform providers, and cloud storage… But maybe it is time to create a position that can juggle all of these balls and get applications to the right place. This person could work with business units to determine needs, provide them with options about deployment that stress strengths and weaknesses in terms of their application, and make sure that each application lives in a “happy place” where all of its needs are met, and the organization is served by the locality. We here at F5, along with many other infrastructure vendors, are increasingly offering virtual versions of our products, in our case the goal is to allow you to extend the impact of our market leading ADC and File Virtualization appliances to virtualized and cloud environments. I won’t speak for other vendors about why they’re doing it, each has a tale to tell that I wouldn’t do justice to.

But the point of this blog is that all of these options… In the cloud, or reserve capacity in the cloud? What impact does putting this application in the cloud have on WAN bandwidth? Can we extend our application firewall security functionality to protect this application if it is sent out to the cloud? Would an internal virtualized deployment be a better fit for the volume of in-datacenter database accesses that this particular application makes? Can we run this application from multiple datacenters and share the backend systems somehow, and if so what is the cost? These are the exact types of questions that a dedicated architect, specialized in deployment models, could ask and dig to find the answers to. It would be just like the other architecture team members, but more focused on getting the most out of where an application is deployed and minimizing the impacts of choices one application team makes upon everyone else.

I think it’s time. A network architect worries mostly about the internal network, and perhaps some of the items above, we should use a different title. I know it’s been abused in the past, but extranet architect might be a good title. Since they would need to increasingly be able to interface with business units and explain choices and impacts, I think I prefer application locality architect… But that makes light of some of the more technical aspects of the job, like setting up load balancing in a cloud – or at least seeing to it that someone is.

Like other architecture jobs, it would be a job of influence, not command. The role is to find the best solution given the parameters of the problem, and then sell the decision makers on why they are the right choice. But that role works well for all the other enterprise architect jobs, just takes a certain type of personality to get it done. Nothing new there, so knowledge of all of the options available would become the largest requirement… How costs of a cloud deployment at vendor X compare to costs of virtual deployment, what the impact of cloud-based applications are on the WAN (given application parameters of course), etc. There are a ton of really smart people in IT, so finding someone capable of digesting and utilizing all of that information may be easier than finding someone who can put up with “You may have the right solution, but for political reasons, we’re going to do this really dumb thing instead” with equanimity.

And for those of you who already have a virtualization or cloud architect… Well that’s just a bit limiting if you have multiple platform choices and multiple deployment avenues. Just like there were application architects and enterprise architecture used their services, so would it be with this role and those specialized architects.

Published Apr 19, 2011
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