by Bernard Golden

Notes from the Catalyst Conference

Jun 20, 20064 mins

I was invited to speak on “Open Source ROI” at the Burton Group’s Catalyst Conference last week. I got to attend a number of sessions during the course of the conference as well as attend the evening cocktail parties. It was a terrific conference with lots of good information. 

I drew some interesting conclusions about the progress of open source in enterprises, which I will address in several posts over the next week or so. In this post, I want to make some general observations about the conference, the audience, and the top-of-list concerns of the conference attendees. 

The Burton Group client base is the mainest of mainstream IT — mostly Fortune 500 companies and their international equivalents. The audience for the conference is IT architects, project managers, some senior IT management; these are people who set the technical direction and make architectural choices for their organization’s long-term IT strategy.

The conference itself is organized in a pretty interesting fashion. Burton Group analysts deliver perhaps half of the sessions, with vendor representatives and independent consultants/analysts presenting the rest. However, the Burton Group pre-screens all outside presentations to ensure they are content-focused, rather than company-specific information. The conference is refreshingly free of typical session presentations that are thinly-disguised product pitches. As a result, it is strongly attended, with high-quality sessions mobbed by attentive audiences.

Some observations about the conference:

SOA is a big deal. The conference had many sessions devoted to SOA, all well-attended. Burton Group focuses a lot on governance in their SOA work — governance being how you design, develop, and manage SOA services,  how you make them available to service consumers, and how you ensure security, service levels, and contract enforcement with consumers.

Chris Koch, in his excellent article on SOA in the June 16 issue of CIO, noted that successful SOA tends to be associated with large, technically competent IT organizations; however, he also noted that SOA is a hard sell to line of business units that see creating a general infrastructure with reusable services as an unnecessary expense compared to single-purpose integrations.

Several end users presented sessions on their SOA experiences — and they were all large, well-funded IT shops. However, the reason they moved to SOA was driven not by internal application integration; instead, they needed a loosely-coupled service mechanism to enable outside organizations to do business with their companies. The IT organizations implemented SOA on the back of a revenue-generating opportunity rather than trying to sell it as a long-term architectural improvement. One company (Rockwell-Collins) got their SOA up an running in six weeks, using an XML appliance to shave time off of the implementation.

Another trend I observed is that collaboration has moved out of the centralized Knowledge Management sphere and into the new world of blogs and wikis. The rap against KM was always that it required extra work — you did the task and then had to spend a bunch of time formatting the document, filling out the document metadata information, and then inserting the document into the KM system. The new style of collaboration uses the collaboration tool as the framework to actually do the work, so that when the task is completed, the final document is already in the KM system.

Something that really hit home for me during the conference is how complex IT is in large companies. They all have the accretion of 30 years of projects and applications: any new initiative has to be able to integrate with all of the existing stuff. There’s so much cruft hanging around that anything new takes years to roll out (unless, of course, there’s revenue on the line, as evinced by the Rockwell-Collins example above).

Finally, it’s clear that many IT organizations rely on vendors to set their direction. Several attendees mentioned to me that they look to their incumbent vendors to tell them what they should do regarding some technological trend. A couple even shared with me that they are reluctant to make technology decisions that their incumbent vendors would disapprove of, since they don’t want to get in trouble with them. I can’t think of another market where suppliers have the upper hand to such an extent; in most, the customer is king. I’m not sure what makes IT different, but it can’t be healthy.

That’s a brief look at the general trends on display at the Catalyst Conference. Next up: open source at the conference.