This Old Infrastructure: Enterprise Architecture

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Think architecting IT is only about technology? Think again.

Enterprise architecture is the most-used and least-understood concept in IT. Disagree? Quick: What does “architecture” mean? Or, for that matter, “enterprise”?

The art of designing buildings began when the first nomadic hunter constructed the first lean-to. But IT architecture is only a few decades old, and to some it may still seem like building mud huts. Too often, people think of IT architecture as simply making sure the company has the right networking equipment. At its best, however, enterprise architecture brings consistent discipline to the process of defining how technology enables business strategy. The trick is to sift through the discipline’s various approaches until you find one that best fits your organization.

But that sifting process is no easy matter. Definitions of enterprise architecture vary widely. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc. defines an architecture as “the structure of the components, their relationships, and the principles and guidelines governing their design and evolution over time.” The Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, better known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, refers to information technology architecture as “an integrated framework for evolving or maintaining existing information technology and acquiring new information technology to achieve the [organization’s] strategic goals and information resources management goals.”

And the jargon gets worse. Take this excerpt from a recent analyst group’s e-mail message on the topic. “Frameworks are an instantiation of predefined, pre-integrated technologies used as a single unit (though not always sold as a single unit) for a specific purpose and containing a clear definition for standardized developer interfacing.” Not exactly written to make your life easier.

At least there’s agreement on what it entails, right? Not always. To some, an enterprise architecture is a graphical model that defines in painstaking detail a series of technologies and business components. To others, it’s the actual software, such as middleware, that binds together the organization’s disparate pieces of technology. To still others, it’s more of a mentality than an explicit set of definitions. But that fuzziness allows the word “architecture” to describe just about any halfway-structured approach to organizing technology. Making matters worse, various industries have their own definitions and frameworks, and in many cases those approaches are still works in progress.

Click here for a nine-step whiteboard process on managing enterprise architecture.

At their most basic, though, most definitions of enterprise architecture require the development of three things: A clear picture of what exists today, a vision for what should exist tomorrow, and a road map for getting there. That probably sounds pretty generic, to the point that you may question whether enterprise architecture is any different from your current planning process. What is different is that enterprise architecture creates a blueprint that includes a set of standards toward which the organization gradually migrates, and it encourages process discipline that ensures no new technology is bought or developed unless it’s directly linked to a specific business initiative. Enterprise architecture also defines a consistent language for describing the business, the organization’s information and the technology used to create, manage and distribute that information. How those blueprints are created and managed, the ways in which the various architectural models are developed, and the processes for making architectural decisions—coordinating a portfolio of IT investments, for example—all of these need to be tailored to your organization.

Why bother? Federal government agencies don’t have a choice. In order to receive funding, agency CIOs must create enterprise architecture plans that conform to federal standards and, in compliance with Clinger-Cohen, they have to update those plans regularly. In the corporate world, meanwhile, enterprise architecture can be a critical component of IT alignment, ensuring that changes in organizational goals are regularly reflected in strategic and tactical plans.

Enterprise architecture can also provide the discipline to help IT control costs. By continually funneling decision-making through internal change-management and standards-review processes, it can help to consolidate IT resources, thus enabling IT to scale with ever-increasing demands from the business. “For me, it’s a matter of survival,” says Tim Getsay, assistant vice chancellor for management information systems at Vanderbilt University. “If we follow the traditional IT patterns, we’re not going to be able to keep up.”

Tell Your CEO:

  • We need consistent internal processes for linking our technology plans to our business plans—and I need you behind that initiative.

    Ask Your Staff:

  • How can we start using enterprise architecture as the framework for our journey toward IT alignment?

    Ask Your Enterprise Architect:

  • When was the last time we reviewed the methods we use for developing and managing our enterprise architecture?

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