This article I wrote for CIO magazine provides an overview of Fast Track Architecture concepts:
Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Think about this for a minute and ask yourself, does this apply to the way you deliver your IT projects?
The CIO community is full of debate about the importance of improving project delivery success rates and becoming more aligned with the business. Despite this, remarkably little is actually improving.
According to the 2010 Standish Group ‘CHAOS report‘, over the past two years IT project success rates declined:
- 32 percent of IT projects were considered successful
- Nearly one-in-four were considered failures, having been cancelled before they were completed or they were delivered but never used
- The remaining 44 percent were considered challenged: they finished late, over budget, or with fewer than the required features and functions
The bottom line is that IT projects in large Enterprises are complex and it’s difficult to get IT delivery right on a large scale. IT project failures result in frustrated end users and frustrated IT teams, but I believe we IT professionals are the ones who need to change first. After all, it is our domain of expertise.
A different approach: Fast Track Architecture
Consider how a start-up business with limited funding would create a new product or service: it would be creative, get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible, but still produce a robust product that’s attractive to customers. If the product is a success then the start-up will reap the rewards and then invest further in product development. Also consider that experienced Entrepreneurs have a 30 percent success rate, so they are only going to invest the minimum amount required to get the initial business running.
The objective of a Fast Track Architecture project is to adopt a similar approach: implement solutions in weeks or months rather than months or years and at a low cost. A number of recent technology developments have made the rapid implementation of robust solutions possible:
- Business Process Automation/Management tools that can be configured rather than requiring code to implement business logic
- Integration tools that don’t require backend system changes
- ‘Mash-up’ technologies
- Cloud computing: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)
- Infrastructure virtualisation solutions for Corporate Data Centres
Fast Track Architecture projects can sometimes be considered as ‘Stepping Stone’ projects to strategic solutions. These projects achieve short-term quick wins and are subsequently replaced by longer-term strategic solutions if the project is successful.
The Fast Track Architecture approach doesn’t apply to all business problems but my view is that a high percentage of projects will gain significant benefits by prioritising the speed of implementation over other design criteria such as the strategic nature and long-term scalability of the solution.
Figure 1: Traditional medium/large IT project
Figure 2: Typical ‘Fast Track Architecture’ project
In my experience business executives have sound reasons for expecting IT projects to be delivered rapidly. The pace of business has sped up over the years due to market forces, most notably globalisation, and the people at the ‘pointy end’ are under increasing pressure to hit KPI targets set for very short timeframes. So, the five key benefits of Fast Track Architecture are:
1. Optimises Return On Investment (ROI)
The earlier a solution can be implemented the faster the ROI will start to be realised. The cost savings or additional revenue generated by a ‘stepping stone’ project can in turn be used to invest in the strategic solution.
Furthermore, by having a system early the business has more time to learn how the opportunity can be fully exploited to maximise the cost savings, increase additional revenue or to enhance customer service.
Finally, if an initiative is found not to be viable this can be discovered early. Traditional IT projects often run on for a long time before the business opportunity is found to be unviable.
2. Reduces IT Project Delivery Risk
A common problem with IT projects is that business requirements are often difficult to capture; business users don’t really know what they need until the project is in delivery when they can see what they’re going to get.
During a Fast Track Architecture project the business end-users will find out what the live system is like at an early stage. This increases the likelihood of understanding and delivering what the end users really need.
Furthermore, if a subsequent strategic project is implemented the delivery risk is reduced because the requirements and constraints will be well understood.
Finally, by delivering a Fast Track Architecture solution the business will be receiving the benefits which gets Executive Leaders off your back so that you can concentrate on delivering the strategic project without regular demands to bring the timescales in or to reduce the costs.
3. Builds Executive Confidence
By delivering Fast Track Architecture projects Executive Leaders will have a sense of confidence that the project team can deliver. Building trusted relationships with key Executives at the beginning of a new working relationship or for a programme is essential to success.
4. Improves the Relationship between Business and IT
Business users often complain that IT takes too long to deliver solutions and is inflexible. Fast Track Architecture demonstrates that you understand your customer’s agenda and are dealing with their key concerns. By demonstrating this empathy you are more likely to achieve buy-in to long-term strategic projects.
5. Reduces Operational Risk
The aim of Fast Track Architecture projects is to provide robust solutions that can operate for many years if required. There are many scenarios where a Fast Track Architecture project can be delivered where an End User Computing (EUC) solution would probably have been used before.
POCs, Pilots and Agile
This approach may appear similar to delivering a Proof-of-Concept or Pilot. It has some similarities but the difference is that a Fast Track Architecture solution is a full-production system that may run for several years and, if it’s a ‘stepping stone’ solution, it may actually use different technologies to the strategic solution (i.e. rapid implementation tools).
This approach may also sound similar to Agile. Concepts from Agile will be useful for Fast Track Architecture projects, however, Agile is concerned primarily with software development whereas Fast Track Architecture projects are concerned with deploying a working system with as little development work as possible.
Not all business problems are suitable for Fast Track Architecture delivery. You’ll need your architecture team to understand the requirements and assess whether it’s feasible or not.
Solution Architecture and Design
The solution design of Fast Track Architecture projects is critical to their success. Many Architects still insist on working to standards of purity and perfection. We architects should take an honest look at ourselves and ask how we can do things differently without compromising integrity. Consider the following four design criteria that are important for Fast Track Architecture projects:
1. Don’t deploy new infrastructure
New infrastructure typically takes weeks or months to be deployed in a corporate data centre. The fastest way to implement your infrastructure requirements is to use existing hardware, which means using existing virtualised hardware, cloud IaaS or, in some cases, desktop PCs.
2. Use System-to-System Integration tools that don’t require ‘backend’ system changes
Many modern applications will have the interfaces that you need for integrating your new application. If legacy applications are a part of the solution then the interfaces may not exist. If you need to build new interfaces you should avoid the development work this will require; it can take many months to implement and there is often a queue of existing change requests for the system. For legacy systems there is often a lack of the required skills.
A number of ‘Integration at the glass’ tools exist which allow you to implement ‘non-invasive’ integration through user interfaces. This reduces the implementation time to days or weeks.
3. Only use software tools that require configuration
Avoid writing code. You may need a small amount of software development, but ensure it’s not the bulk of the project. This is where SaaS offerings and tools such as Business Process Management (BPM) that can be configured come into their own.
4. Only deliver critical business requirements
Spend time with your business sponsor to understand what really is critical to deliver the desired outcomes.
A key requirement from a delivery perspective is that you will need to use highly skilled subject matter and technical experts; the type of people who can implement something in a fraction of the time a less-experienced person would take. The day-rate may be higher for these people but you’re using them for a lot less time.
Fitting a Fast Track Architecture project within your organisation’s delivery lifecycle may pose some challenges but with the right sponsorship it should be possible to overcome these issues.
Your Enterprise will need to maintain a coherent IT landscape and deploying too many tactical solutions will become a maintenance issue if they aren’t replaced in the medium term. In many cases you will need to implement a ‘strategic’ project and use Fast Track Architecture projects as stepping stones towards this.
As an Architect I believe we are the IT professionals who need to change the most and should consider experimenting with new approaches in order effect real change. If we don’t, our business colleagues are likely to just get on with it anyway. As the pace of business has sped up over the years the businesses we work within have long since abandoned the ideal of artistic perfection in their day to day work. Given this current business context I’ll sign off by leaving you with another famous quote to consider:
“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
If you’d like to offer feedback, share your experience or ask a question, please don’t hesitate to email me.