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An IS 'urbanization' model

Bringing together and using the model, and ensuring that it remains alive

Interview with Dominique Buczinski, Director, Bull Management

In order to get the information system under control and effectively guide its evolution, it is essential to have a view of it that is not only clear and dynamic, but also shared between all those involved with the system. A so-called ‘information systems urbanization’* model, operating at five different levels – from the business rules to the hardware infrastructure – on the one hand helps to clarify the responsibilities of everyone involved and on the other establishes the necessary corresponding relationships to allow the impact of any modifications to the system to be assessed. By choosing the right level of granularity, and carrying out this ‘mapping’ exercise around the perimeter of each project, it is possible to create a model that is simple to implement, usable by everyone and capable of delivering concrete benefits very rapidly.

The information systems of large-scale organizations are becoming so complex that it is often difficult, even for the IT Department itself, to see how they all fit together. Applications and infrastructures are interdependent, and every project, every program, every business or technical change brings with it its own set of modifications. Ideally, it would be necessary to evaluate all the constraints, the effects and the needs of the different groups of people and systems involved, before any work was carried out. If one could do this, then unexpected technical incompatibilities or unforeseen degradation in performance would be avoided, and one would be able to rationalize resources that might possibly be shared such as databases of contacts or technical repositories. Or even, when one part of the business decided to launch a new service, for example in banking, telecoms or government, it would be possible to see immediately what that entailed and to make commitments in the full knowledge of the impact of this on the delivery schedule. To sum up, the whole organization would have something to gain from the existence of a ‘map and compass’ of its information system, the one to help them identify where they were, and the other to guide them.

Unfortunately, very often speed is of the essence, and it is hard to envisage launching an exhaustive census of information system components – from the business aspects to the operating parameters. What is more, no tools currently exist that enable such a comprehensive picture of the IS to be produced, from business processes to servers. Under these conditions, one therefore needs to find an approach that is both pragmatic and relevant, simple to carry out and simple to use. So the focus needs to be on building a model that delivers the kind of shared vision of the information system needed to manage it effectively, which enables a dialogue between all the stakeholders (business, IT experts and operational), and which remains accessible to the people who will have to deal with it. Experience shows that establishing a five-level ‘urbanization’ model can provide a useful answer to all these requirements for exchanging information and visibility around the information system.

An ‘urbanization’ model on five levels
In a reasonably traditional way, the five layers of the proposed model each restrict the information system to a homogeneous level of responsibility and intervention.

1. Business view of the information system 
The business view is obtained by analyzing the operational resources that need to be deployed to execute the organization’s corporate strategy. This fundamental stage enables business processes and activities to be identified and described, the semantics of business data to be captured, and everyone’s roles to be more precisely defined. From this flows a whole range of targeted processes that need to be created or optimized depending on the current situation. As a result, a map of the perimeters of the various different information systems and their contact points can therefore be drawn.

2. Functional view of the information system
By identifying and consolidating the tasks needed to support the organization’s business processes, the functional view enables the functional architecture of the information system to be expressed. This model, which facilitates the transition between business need and IT tool, is expressed in terms of activities, business objects and roles.

3. Application-oriented view of the information system
Whilst remaining consistent with the functional architecture of the system (and respecting service-oriented architectures), the application-oriented view provides a representation of the information system in terms of domains and business applications in a way that is independent of the underlying infrastructure. In particular, it offers a vision that enables the organization to look beyond application ‘silos’. Depending on the level of detail required, one can envisage systems, services, flows or functional objects being described.

4. Technical view of the information system
The technical view depicts the software infrastructure (databases, application servers, Web servers, middleware…) as the collective axis of the various information systems. It enables the infrastructure services that support the application architecture to be managed, optimized and supported. Depending on the level of granularity required, it identified systems, components, services or technical information flows.

5. Physical view of the information system
The physical view depicts the hardware infrastructure (servers, routers, storage bays…). It enables resources to be managed dynamically and to be rationalized (through consolidation, sharing and virtualization), as well as helping to anticipate technological evolutions, requirements and constraints linked to the various different elements of the system.

This kind of model is particularly useful because every level tends to interact with the others. This makes it easier to clarify and unify the vision of the information system and, for example, the evaluation of the consequences of a new demand from the business or a technical update to be automated.

Bringing together and using the model, and ensuring remains alive
If it is to be truly useful, this kind of model must nevertheless be dynamic. Too often it is clear that all the efforts made to establish a map of the information system are wasted when it comes to keeping it up to date. With numerous, rapid evolutions, it is essential that one person is given formal responsibility for each level, and that the processes for keeping it up to date are clearly defined.

And the model is really only operational if efforts are made to map the corresponding relationships between the different levels. These relationships are essential, for example, if one wants to evaluate the impact of a project, define a Business Continuity Plan or establish service level commitments. In addition, it is useful to join a master plan to the model, which sets out the main directions in which the system is likely to evolve in synch with the corporate strategy. These two elements are vital, as they provide a view of the current situation on the one hand, and the direction to follow on the other; which means one can take the best path when it comes to transforming the system.

Whether it involves creating the model or mapping the corresponding relationships, the task can appear to be huge! But it is important to remember that one can operate at different levels of granularity. It is neither essential – nor very productive – to go down to an excessively fine level of details. What is more, it is not always necessary to embark on a complete modeling of the information system: you can restrict yourself to the boundaries of a single project, where this kind of up-front work will already deliver useful results, and subsequently consolidate the various different partial maps. Finally, don’t forget that the model must always remain usable. If it is too technical, too detailed or too abstract, those responsible for the different levels will not feel a sense of ownership of it, and it will be neglected (business users, for example, often criticize such models as being too ‘IT-focused’ and dealing with concepts that are too far removed from their day-to-day work).

If one embarks on information systems urbanization in a modest, simple and rigorous way, and if the model is regularly updated, one can very quickly get tangible results from it. By putting in place a single, shared vision that it easy to understand, and that establishes a common vocabulary, the model helps to kick-start the discussion process; an essential first step. For example, it enables one to see much more clearly the interactions and constraints that cause people to make demands of each other. A layered view also helps to stir people into action, because it not only allows business needs (for a new service, for example) to be taken into account, but also technological ones (such as a software update), and to pass on the consequences in every direction and at every level. As a result, it helps to improve governance. By segmenting the vision of the information system, one can manage it level-by-level (for example, a specific IT department could be made responsible for applications) or according to the master plan (overall management and control, with evolving targets).

What does Bull offer?
In order to establish this kind of model, consulting (the business, Contracting Authority), technical specialists (IT department, Prime Contractor) and those responsible for running the system need to be brought together. But at each level there are different interlocutors and often highly segmented business functions. In order to ensure the essential coherence of the whole, the profound change engendered by this sharing of information and definition of collective rules needs to be carefully managed and supported. To help its customers in their approach to this kind of task, Bull has the expertise to get involved at each of the five levels, whether using its own in-house resources for the technology-related aspects, or by surrounding itself with business specialists when it comes to the more strategic elements.

* IS Urbanization is a concept which is widely accepted in France. It involves ‘mapping’ the information system (rather like a town) to respond to three main aims: to rationalize and simplify it, to make it more modular and responsive, and to improve communication between the various components.

 

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