Dec 242010

I was having a friendly telephone conversation with Cutter’s Ken Orr a few days ago, and he referred to the concept of “urban planning” that serves as a metaphor for large-scale enterprise architecture. In this approach, you don’t worry so much about what’s inside each building, but you worry about the zoning, the width of the streets, the size of the parking lots, etc., so that the entire system doesn’t create traffic gridlock or wind tunnels. It’s architecture “in the large.”

We went on to discuss what happens after a merger or acquisition, when an IT architect may have to design connections between two sets of systems, rather than ripping out and replacing the entire IT base of one of the organizations. The two ideas, urban planning and mergers, suddenly fused in my mind and I said to Ken, “it’s like an English hotel!” Now Ken is a well-traveled gentleman, so he immediately understood what I meant. You check into an old English hotel, tired from your overseas trip, lugging your roller bag. You get off the elevator — sorry, the lift — on your floor, and on your way to your room, you encounter multiple sets of a few stairs up, a few stairs down, with many twists and turns in between. Each time, you have to lift your suitcase instead of being able to roll to your destination. And you curse the building architect under your breath.

Of course, what happened is that the hotel used to occupy one small building, but they expanded, bought the adjacent houses, and tore down the walls to connect the new spaces to the old one. However, since the buildings were built at different times by different people, the floors were not at the same height. So when you cross from what used to be one house to another, you have to go up or down some steps.

Next time you look at an organization’s complicated collection of systems, and the interfaces between them, do a little archeology — and think of an old English hotel. It may not make your job much easier, but it may explain why the complexity is there.


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