Business apps face a brave new world

Consumerisation of IT and cloud computing are not just changing the way apps are designed and deployed - they could fundamentally change the role and nature of the IT department.

Read time 6min 40sec

Some are bold enough to say that a wave of disruptions sweeping across the business applications landscape will be the end of the traditional IT department and the death of enterprise resource planning (ERP) as we know it. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but there's little doubt that cloud computing, enterprise mobility and the consumerisation of IT promise to bring massive changes to IT departments and CIOs over the next three to five years.

Cloud deployment models are changing the ways organisations roll-out their applications to end-users, bringing the promise of more flexibility and scalability at lower costs. Meanwhile, end-users are demanding that their workplace apps are as engaging, easy to use and slick as the consumer smartphone and tablet apps they use every day.

As a result of these trends and others, business applications being broken down into smaller, more configurable chunks of functionality, is a process that analysts call componentisation. Market researcher Forrester reckons componentisation "will enable app delivery teams to blend the best elements of custom-built apps and components and off-the shelf components for functions such as loan origination and know-your-customer apps".

"With the growth of the cloud, smaller apps are taking over the enterprise. As a result, in the future, all business apps will become social and monetisation will come from the use of data, not the use of apps or software," says Rick Parry, MD of AIGS Africa. Enterprises are being forced to break down apps into smaller chunks so they can adapt quickly to changing business conditions, he adds.

One driving force behind the move to the cloud is the way mobility is infiltrating even conservative corners of business, says Daniel Hall, Magic Software's country manager for South Africa. Software as a service (SaaS) frees organisations of the worry and costs related to where and how these applications are administered. Confidence in the cloud continues to grow as more and more customers are making use of customer relationship management, workflow management and, more recently, ERP applications, adds Hall.

PaaS the salt

Now that companies are starting to embrace SaaS for applications such as CRM and billing, the next wave will come from adopting platform as a service (PaaS) to power in-house development, customisation and integration, says Quinton Pienaar, CEO of reseller Agilitude. PaaS offerings are cloud services that allow developers to develop and test apps without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure.

In addition to providing servers, storage and other infrastructure, PaaS offerings provide tools and libraries that organisations can use to create applications. This may include application design, application development, testing, and deployment.

PaaS enforces coding and testing standards on developers, streamlining the writing, testing and modification of apps. With PaaS, developers can design an app once and immediately deploy it to mobile platforms and the Web, rather than spending an extra six months developing a mobile app when the business demands it, says Pienaar.

I'm aware of organisations that have very small IT shops because most of their systems are in the cloud.

Quinton Pienaar, CEO, Agilitude

The result is that developers can focus on the user and the functionality rather than the underlying technical infrastructure when they design new applications. In future, this could help transform the IT department from an infrastructure provider into provider of strategic services to the business.

"I'm aware of organisations that have very small IT shops because most of their systems are in the cloud," says Pienaar. "The makeup of the people who are left is very different - they tend to be process people and business analysts. In many instances, you're definitely not seeing the large IT departments you did in the past."

Yet even the biggest advocates of cloud computing admit the shift to SaaS will take time, especially in South Africa, where adoption lags global trends. Jeremy Waterman, MD at Sage ERP Africa, says his company has taken a balanced approach to moving customers towards the cloud. Since on-premises installations still account for around 85% of the customer base for incumbent software vendors, they need to offer hybrid solutions that enable customers to benefit from the cloud while driving value from their existing software investments, he says.

Legacy remains

Because on-premises applications usually have hooks and interfaces into other systems, it's not as simple as it sounds to break them down and shift them into the cloud, Waterman says. Instead, companies can be helped to move simpler functions such as shipping, taxation and banking to cloud solutions, and migrate HR, financials and other back-end systems to the cloud in a slow and orderly manner.

Organisations should start the move to the cloud by identifying priority areas where SaaS can give them benefits in terms of agility, scalability and cost-savings, says Diellie Schmutz, Software AG's Global Consulting Services director. Initially, most will have hybrid environments with cloud and legacy on-premises applications in place.

The move towards the cloud is a big ask, given that many organisations are still running monolithic legacy environments rather than n-tier architectures that separate presentation, application processing, and data management functions from each other. In reality, legacy applications will be slowly, almost surreptitiously, replaced by new, modular, componentised applications, says Hall.

Organisations should make use of an integration platform to integrate the legacy applications to the new, modern front-end application and then slowly replace each legacy application with the new backend software components. This enables them to maintain their investments in their legacy applications while slowly modernising.

ERP applications and legacy systems will be around 20 years from now, in the same way that mainframes did not disappear when the world shifted to client/server computing, says Parry. Companies should, for that reason, take a pragmatic approach to tapping the data these systems house using today's connectors and data access tools. "Don't worry too much about trying to change the legacy," says Parry. "More often than not, relatively simple front-ends with access to data can address your business requirements."

Form over function

The new wave of technologies upends the traditional approach to application design. The evolution in the market is a shift towards an 'I' world that is about enabling the end-user and not just the enterprise, says Gary Regan, technical director at Dac Systems. "End-users want to be able to interact with an application at any time and any place," he adds.

Apps can no longer just look pretty, as ease of use and functionality are critical to ensure stickiness and adoption.

Daniel Hall, country manager, Magic Software SA

Where IT departments used to focus on the functionality of the application and how it would fit into the enterprise ecosystem, form trumps function every time today, says Hall. In this, today's mobile environment makes a dramatic break from the app development philosophies of the client/server and even the early Web era.

"Consumerisation of IT and the rapid adoption of (mobile) consumer apps is changing the way in which we use enterprise apps," he adds. "There's a substantial shift toward thinking about user experience, and not just the user interface. Apps can no longer just look pretty, as ease of use and functionality are critical to ensure stickiness and adoption."

If the user experience offered by corporate applications isn't good, employees will simply download apps of their own choice from consumer app stores and potentially introduce insecure applications into the enterprise IT environment, says Hall. The power, in other words, is in the user's hands.

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