Only in Ireland is it considered a compliment to call someone both brilliant and mad. And nobody in the IT industry personifies those traits better than Annrai O'Toole, the Irish-born CEO of Cape Clear, a provider of tools for building Web services applications that has its U.S. headquarters in Waltham, Mass.
O'Toole is brilliant because he was an early pioneer of the whole concept of Web services, founding Cape Clear back in 1999. Back then, Web services was little more than next generation computer theory based around an emerging set of application integration standards.
Since then, that vision has slowly evolved into an increasingly mature set of products, giving Cape Clear the ability to sign up companies such as McKesson, Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance, NASA, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, British Telecom and the America Online unit of Time Warner as customers.
What is allowing that to happen is emergence of actual products, collectively know as the Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) category, that allow IT organizations to buy middleware that is built from the ground up with Web services in mind. ESB products for the first time make it easier for Cape Clear and other Web services pioneers to finally capitalize on the investments they have made to redefine application integration and deployment.
Rather than trying to bolt Web services on top of legacy applications and middleware, a true ESB allows an IT organization to write applications using a services architecture where every application can be more easily integrated with any other application or data source.
These so-called Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) are crucial because they significantly reduce the cost of deploying and changing applications because rather than thinking about middleware as an overly expensive after thought, integration is now built into any application that rides on top of the ESB.
But the emergence of ESB products in of themselves is only a necessary foundation. What makes them interesting is a coming generation of BPEL tools that allow IT organizations to manipulate a business process regardless of the number of applications that the business process spans. This represents a fundamental advance in enterprise computing because once you start manipulating business processes, a company's software can actually bend to the business. In contrast, the typical enterprise application from SAP, Peoplesoft or Oracle represents the best business process practices assembled by those vendors in the form of an application.
The problem with that inflexible approach is that it requires the customer to bend its business process to the model defined in the applications. Worse yet, if everybody is running the same basic set of applications, it makes it difficult to gain an competitive edge by say running SAP better than the next person.
This whole issue is at the core of the debate over whether IT matters. Because developing and integrating applications is overly difficult, the safest thing to do is buy the same packaged applications that everyone else has deployed for the very same reasons.
The emergence of BPEL and ESB changes all that to the point where the pendulum is now in the process of swinging back towards finding competitive advantage in not necessarily building applications, but rather allowing business savvy users to create unique composite applications that provide a competitive advantage because they can now quickly meld business processes housed in different applications.
For example, IT organizations leveraging BPEL and ESB should be able to more quickly create business dashboards that not only provide greater visibility into the business, but also allow business executives to actually alter the company's business strategy faster by changing a business process. Given that fact that you can not have a significant business event today without an accompanying IT event, the company that has the most flexible IT infrastructure is the one that will ultimately gain a significant advantage over slower rivals.
How often do we hear business people complaining about how slow the business is to respond to change because of IT? What we are finally approaching after 20 years of wishful thinking is the point where business goals and IT can finally be truly aligned.
It will take a few more years for the impact of BPEL and ESB to become widely apparent. But in the meantime, we can return to why the brilliant O'Toole may also be mad.
His small company, named after a beautiful but lonely spot off the southern coast of the Emerald isle, plans to duke it out IBM, Microsoft, BEA, Sun, Borland and a host of other companies all determined to make the next generation of enterprise application development and deployment their own. As a former CTO of Iona Technologies, he knows this space well so he may very well succeed. But to do that it, Cape Clear will need someone who is truly mad enough to win such a battle.