Be Mindful of Mashups

Generally speaking, if you can’t tell me what a buzzword means in a sentence or two, I dismiss the term as half baked and relegate it to the bingo chart. When I first heard the term Mashup in relation to software, the poor girl at the trade show was unable to pass this test so I took the chotchkies and moved on. Well that was several years ago and the products from the big players (IBM, Microsoft, etc.) are starting to accumulate. It’s time to take notice and figure out what this means to you.

I started this post a day or two ago and got side tracked. (Hey look a quarter) Just this morning I ran across a great article by James Niccolai, So What Is an Enterprise Mashup, Anyway? Last fall, the Burton Group’s Craig Roth posited that a mashup is more a state-of-mind than an actual architectural style but I much prefer Niccolai’s position. “lightweight applications that combine data from two or more sources to create something more valuable than the sum of their parts.” This passes my one sentence test and while there are nuances to be explored, I can quote this in a boardroom and be far less likely to get the dog watching television stare so commonly seen when discussing new technology.

Conceptually I have one problem with mashups. They are by definition derivative and depend on services and data from traditional application sources. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it comes with dynamics that must be understood. While mashups certainly have their place as accelerators, I wonder about how “resilient” they will prove to be in the enterprise. I can envision a great deal of buzz around a user being able to get ERP data merged with HR for new pie charts on company performance but needs for different views are often transitory and If it’s easy to implement, it’s easy to abandon. Ask any eRoom or Sharepoint site admin. I can see a future where supporting such an environment turns into a search and rescue mission for the one or two really valuable components in a sea of mediocre ideas.

Kapow Technologies has offered EMC Documentum connector for quite sometime and they were certainly an early though leader in the space. As I look at their value proposition these days, so much of what they offer smells like an Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) framework rather than the “2.0 ish” mashup. Like EAI, as mashups move from demoware to integral components of the enterprise, IT will face new challenges that are not really technology but are more policy related.

For example, when you have a highly regulated industry, system change control is just as regimented. Mashup can create heretofore impossible relationships between systems on radically different release and support schedules. These relationships can translate into “Dependencies” that become exponentially more difficult to manage. No matter how much you try, you’ll never convince the VP of Marketing that that mashup report widget on his portal start page isn’t a tier one application at 3 in the morning. Rapid implementation comes with a price, sometimes paid when the Blackberry buzzes off the night stand.

Don’t think that I am arguing against mashups though. I think it is about time that we put more tools in the hands of the users so that they can assemble apps for themselves from validated components. ECM is one of the most obvious potential beneficiaries from mashup technology because at a certain level, the desire to assemble content from various sources, encourages greater discipline in production both in process and technology.

The mashup however is not a trumpet heralding the end of IT as we know it as some have suggested. Mashups may indeed be a way of addressing a certain kind of application development backlog, but I believe that in the short term it will serve more as a novelty to distract disgruntled pseudo-technical people while the wait on the thrice delayed mammoth IT effort that promised to solve every efficiency problem in the business. Its time now that the processes catch up to the technology and we understand mashups real place in the technology ecosystem. Are they a novelty, a productivity tool or a mission critical EAI component. Answering that question up front will make all the difference.

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