Defrag: Web 2.0 goes to work


Rod Smith, the IBM VP for emerging technology, had a lot to squeeze into a short time. I had trouble keeping my notes up with his pace, and I wish I had more time to look at his slides. They often seemed to have more in-depth information on the subjects he described, I will contact him and see if they’re available online anywhere. (Edit- Rod sent them on, thanks! Download defrag_keynote.pdf

They are well worth looking through.)

He started off by outlining his mission in this presentation. He wanted to talk about the nuts-and-bolts issues of the technology behind 2.0, and why so many businesses are interested in it. The first question was why 2.0 apps are produced so much quicker than traditional enterprise tools?

Part of the reason is that they tend to be a lot simpler, and more focused on solving a specialized problem for a small number of people, rather than tackling a general need for a wide audience. Being built on the network, they are naturally more collaborative, and support richer interactions between people. They also tend to be built around either open or de facto standards. Because they are comparatively light-weight, they can be altered to respond to change a lot more easily too.

DIY or shadow IT, technology developed outside of the IT department, has always been around. Business unit people have been writing applications as Excel macros for a long time. (On a personal note, Liz is an actuary with a large health insurer, and she’s been creating complex VBA and SAS applications for many years as part of her job.) What 2.0 brings to the table is a lot of interesting ways to link these isolated projects together, for example by outputting to an RSS feed, which can then be routed around the company. People in business units are now a lot more tech savvy than they used to be, which also really helps the adoption of these tools.

He moved on to talk about the practicalities of creating "five minute applications" or mashups. The biggest hurdle always seems to be how to get easy access to the data? "I have all this data from years of doing business, how do I unlock it?"

As an example, he looked at how StrikeIron had created a location-based mashup of Dun and Bradstreet’s business information service, for establishing the legitimacy of a company you’re dealing with, or finding likely sales prospects. (I saw a screenshot of an actual map display, rather than a text summary, but I can’t locate that.)

Old companies have accumulated a lot of potentially very useful and valuable data, but there’s not much use being made of most of it. The question, as above, is how to make that data mashable. The term often used for this part of the process is ‘widget composition’, which covers a lot of different technologies, from Google gadgets to TypePad widgets.

There are of course some dangers with the brave new world of Web 2.0 in business. One of the strengths of traditional IT is that there’s accountability and responsibility for ensuring service availability and data accuracy. If a service created by a business unit member becomes widely popular, should they be the ones to maintain and update it, or is there a process to transfer that to IT? There’s little visibility from the CIO and IT manager level as to what’s going on with these shadow IT projects. It’s like the early days of internal web servers being installed across companies in an ad hoc way, we’re only just sorting out the tangle that resulted from that. There’s also some unique issues with digital rights management and copyright once you’re sending data through feeds. It’s not so much like music DRM where the problem is malicious actors trying to steal, as just allowing people to keep track of what the right attribution and correct uses of the data are. has done some interesting work in this area, creating meta-tags to attach to data that allows automatic handling based on rules for different attributions.

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