Can application networks save large organisations from being eaten by start-ups?

Large organisations aren’t nimble enough to launch new, innovative solutions to meet customer demands and get ahead of the competition.

The barriers to entry—for every industry— have evaporated. Start-ups are disrupting everything from financial services, to crowd-sourced insurance, to customisable health care, to shopping experiences. A new idea can be developed in the garage using powerful building blocks like unlimited cloud compute power, free dev tools, open APIs and open source components. New entrants build fast, move fast and are educating consumers on the type of experience they should be getting. 

As a result, consumers, employees and partners expect everything to be on demand and everything to be connected.   This leaves many large organisations, with calcified processes and monolithic infrastructures, with a problem. They aren’t nimble enough to launch new, innovative solutions to meet customer demands and get ahead of the competition—faced with a risk of losing customers, dropping market share and missing growth targets. The reality is that altering monolithic business processes is time consuming and complex, creating paralysis rather than agility. What’s a business to do?   

Application networks can help an organisation be more agile and better respond to market, business, and consumer demands by seamlessly connecting applications, data and devices. We have seen, time and time again, that when you create smaller, agile units for business, processes and underlying technology, radical transformation can occur. There are no silver bullets here and with any change it requires people to do things differently and not just switching technology. Application networks help in facilitating this change.     

Reusable assets that benefit everyone  

Application networks seamlessly connect applications, data and devices. They take a different approach to the methods used to connect applications, data and devices today. Instead of utilising point-to-point connections or isolated architectures, the application network provides an infrastructure for information exchange by allowing applications to be “plugged” into the network. It can be as simple as two nodes that enable two applications to share information, or it can span the enterprise and extend to external ecosystems. 

Designed to honour Metcalfe's law, every new node added to the network will increase the network’s value, since the data and capabilities of that node are made discoverable and consumable by others on the network.   

Unlike prior approaches to connecting applications in the enterprise, an application network is designed for an era where people inside and outside of an enterprise have controlled access to data and assets through parts of the network using consumption models that are aligned with their way of working.   

The key aspect of an application network, like most networks, is exchange and reuse of value—a node is reusable elsewhere via its connection to the network. For example, an employee management system API allows access to employees and their data based on entitlements assigned to the API's clients, and perhaps to the end user on behalf of whom the clients are accessing that API. The team that integrates with that system API will need to register as a client of that API, and they will need to figure out what entitlements to set up and establish which end users(s) on whose behalf it will access that system API. 

Self-interests

Another key aspect of the application network, is the degree to which it caters to the self-interests of each node. Facebook, for example, depends on its ability to satiate an individual’s need to know what their friends are doing and offer engaging content to members based on their interests as inferred from their friends' interests. Members curate content knowing their friends will see it; they judge their friends' reactions and rate their friends' content, which establishes reputation and self-image. It is then up to the network and its dynamics to translate that to the value of the network as a whole.   

This is equally true for an application network, in which the teams attaching the applications and creating valuable new services are usually most focused on getting specific projects completed, rather than creating reusable assets for the whole organisation. A successful application network must find ways to align the teams' self-interests with the creation of reusable assets that benefit everyone. Just as a social network must allow members to keep some content private and some access limited, an application network must also allow some services, design assets and APIs to be kept private, while enabling other teams to reuse.   

Whether assets are reused also depends on the self-interest of teams engaging with the network and consuming or contributing to it. In traditional enterprise IT initiatives based on Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) principles, reuse was mandated from the top, but not designed for the consumer. Certain patterns and service interfaces and architectures were predetermined by a small group of enterprise architects and were required to be reused by all teams. Increasingly, this approach is being replaced by "merit-based reuse", where potentially reusable assets are created by a broad population of teams in the course of implementing projects, and those assets are consumed by that same population based on the merit each team finds in them. An application network still needs a small team that helps to define and govern, called a Center for Enablement (C4E) where the focus is to evangelise and help other teams outside of IT get successful with the existing assets and help shape new assets.  

When considering an application network, it’s important to define the design principles that shape how its components are built: 

  • The network is opinionated: The network has built-in, well-defined and systematic mechanisms for attaching new nodes and enabling them within the network. These include publishing APIs and their specifications, registering client access grants and client dependencies, bringing them within a security context, and so on. It also provides built-in, opinionated ways of operating the nodes and tending to their lifecycle of collaboration between users of the assets, and of analysing and securing the network.
  • The network is consistent: Rules and policies are enforced within a domain. Artifacts such as APIs, templates and portals inherit the services and restrictions of the network. APIs are subject to the policy enforcement of the network. Templates use common error handling defined by the network.
  • Applications are connected to the network: Conversely, applications are mostly not connected directly with each other. The connection into the network contains rich metadata about each application which the network uses to expose that application inside the network.
  • The network adheres to Metcalfe's law: Adding a new node to the network must add n+1 value to the network. That value must be a set of KPIs that are built in and can be tracked.
  • All data connected to the network is discoverable and addressable: Every resource is exposed through system APIs. Not all data will be exposed to consumers — this is an administrative choice.
  • The consumer is king: The fundamental value of the network is to unlock and enable consumption of data and resources. Every person in an enterprise can connect and get value from the network. This means the network must cater to different consumer profiles across technical and non-technical roles.

With the massive number of applications, data and devices that need connecting in the modern enterprise, and the incredible amount of time and resources companies spend trying to tie everything together, an application network can provide the agility, flexibility and speed that businesses urgently need. New applications can be plugged into the application network as easily as you plug in a printer.    

The application network can deliver unified vision and control and offer intelligent data about the relationships between different applications. A new vision of what your IT organisation can be and do can allow your business to harness the digital revolution—an application network is designed to make that happen.

This is the fourth and final abridged extract from Ross Mason’s new book ‘First, Break IT’, available for free download. 

Ross Mason, Founder of MuleSoft

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