The Tom Sawyer Approach to Driving Application Innovation

Michael Vizard
Oct. 16 2012, 11:00AM EDT

At least once a week someone says they wish a business partner would create some application or feature to address a specific need they have. Unfortunately, that idea generally falls by the wayside because the person with the idea knows that business partner doesn’t have either the will or the capacity to execute.

But with the advent of platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technologies in the enterprise the inertia that tends to thwart a lot of innovation from ever taking place may soon be overcome. In the hands of the right IT organization, PaaS has the potential to create a space where anyone could extend the capabilities of a particular product or service. Imagine the business potential of organizations spending their time and resources to customize products and services to meet their specific requirements. Because of the work they put in to making that product or service fit their needs, the whole concept of switching vendors would almost be anathema.

We may not be too far off from seeing that actually happen. As part of an effort to facilitate that process we’re starting to see the emergence of backend-as-a-service (BaaS) platforms from companies such as FatFractal. Written in Java, FatFractal is a PaaS offering that includes middleware that provides a lightweight service bus based on RESTful APIs for integrating business logic with any number of backend IT services. That NoServer piece of the FatFractal PaaS platform is essentially an instance of a BaaS. The API that FatFractal creates for the application not only exposes a datastore, it lets the developer tap into an events model, object permissions by users/groups, authentication, a queries language, custom code and even hook into service APIs on the backend, says Nickels.

The whole idea, says FatFractal CEO Kevin Nickels, is to provide a level of abstraction around complex backend IT processes using well-formed APIs that make those services accessible to almost any developer. In fact, it’s that lack of accessibility that has been holding back the adoption of PaaS technologies . Furthermore, Nickels contends that because it’s not easy to invoke backend services the rate at which innovation occurs across the business is being stymied. By making those backend services easier to invoke, people can concentrate more on the actual business logic that drives the application, adds Nickels.

In essence, Nickels is asking CIOs to follow the example of Tom Sawyer in terms of getting other people to help them paint the application fence. Given half a chance most of these people would leap at the chance to access a set of APIs that would allow them to not only get more value out of a product they have invested in; it might also create whole new lines of business opportunities. Nickels argues we're already seeing this trend in the consumer space, now it's time to apply it to the development of business applications.

The simple fact is that future of enterprise IT is going to be a lot less about command and control in favor of a whole lot more application innovation. But that can’t really happen until IT organizations get a whole lot more comfortable with letting people outside the IT organization create business value. That means giving those people within reason unfettered access to IT services that they will undoubtedly combine in ways no one within IT ever intended or foresaw. And the best part of that is once those customers are not only a whole lot happier being essentially locked into a product or service; it’s be IT that gets the credit. Or as Nickels puts it: “Enterprise IT has a great future; it’s just not going to be the same as it is today.”

In the meantime, the next time you’re thinking about how to better align IT with the rest of the business, you might want ask yourself what would Tom Sawyer do in a similar situation.

Michael Vizard

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Nice article on some of the value of PaaS. BaaS seems like an interesting idea but I think more straight up PaaS would be better in allowing the developer and IT determine how those services should be built and retain control. All of these new architectures are walking a line between a free-for-all and a guarded castle. Interesting to see how this evolves over time