Staff Writer, CNET News.com
When Toby Redshaw joined Motorola as vice president of strategy and architecture in 2001, he acted like a home owner sizing up a ramshackle fixer-upper.
Instead of just making cosmetic changes, he sought to repair the company's technical foundation by drawing up a plan to refurbish Motorola's entire infrastructure.
Just as an architect would design a building, Redshaw drew up a blueprint—a technical architecture—to bring order to what he called the company's "spaghetti layer of applications, boxes and wires." With the right architectural strategy and people, he says, Motorola can roll out new applications quicker than before and reduce cost of maintaining overlapping systems.
"Architecture was just an ugly step-child for too long," Redshaw said. "If you get your architecture wrong, who cares how good your stone-masons are? Architecture is the backbone of your IT strategy."
Enterprise architects like Redshaw are enjoying a surge of influence in businesses. They've long held important positions in information technology departments, but they were often consigned to generating big-picture documents and standards compliance recommendations that had limited impact on day-to-day operations. Today, as companies seek to rebuild their IT systems to be more cost-effective and flexible, architects are increasingly viewed as a vital factor.
"My CEO (Ed Zander) has an expression: Architect it well and then distribute," Redshaw said.
The job of the enterprise architect is to design a company's computing infrastructure and provide guidelines on how to build and maintain systems. High-level architects, in general, are more seasoned, and much sought-after, professionals who are closely tied to a company's overall IT strategy. Managers in corporate IT architectural groups can make from $150,000 to $500,000 per year and have been largely safe from being outsourced, according to experts.
At software outfits, executives with similar titles such as Microsoft Chief Software Architect Bill Gates or BEA Systems' chief architect, Adam Bosworth, focus specifically on software product development. In other business, however, the architect title can be attached to a broad range of jobs, from sketching out procedures for running corporate data centers to defining how businesses represent and manage their data.
The growing influence of architects stems from the untidy state of many businesses' technology installations. After spending freely during the boom of the 1990s, corporations have found themselves with an excess of computing gear and software in their data centers. Rather than install new systems, businesses now are drawing up plans to make better use of what they already have by consolidating and better integrating systems—a trend that has contributed to for a number of software providers.
The goal of a well-defined architecture is to lower the cost of running complex computing systems. Rather than have each company department install its own kind of database server, a company can standardize on a particular configuration of, say, a Microsoft database.
"If you don't have a strong architecture strategy, everyone does their own thing and you end up with six kinds of servers and (software) platforms," said Andy Miller, vice president of technical architecture at Corporate Express. "You get silos of everything, and that explodes your cost."
An architect's edge over the CIO
A simplified support structure should allow IT professionals to reduce the amount of time devoted to maintaining existing systems. Analysts say that companies devote 60 percent to 70 percent of their IT budgets simply to maintaining existing systems, rather than investing in new initiatives that can cut operating costs or generate new revenue.
As companies undergo significant technological changes to derive more value from their existing IT systems, demand for high-level architects is swelling. Following a depressed IT labor market over the past few years, companies are finally looking to expand their IT management teams, said Marc Lewis, North American president of , an IT management search firm. Demand for managers with architecture responsibilities is growing faster than that for chief information officers because architects bring a great deal of technical expertise to an organization, he said.
"Advanced technologies like services-oriented architectures and enterprise application integration have come much more sharply into focus, and (companies need) the people who have true architecture depth and breadth," Lewis said.
Businesses such as Motorola and pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer are aggressively adopting a , a modular system design meant to make it easier to build new applications and share information between systems. Enterprise architects at those businesses develop shared services that can be used by departments throughout a company.
Pfizer, for instance, established a common security service for checking a network ID and password when employees log onto the company network. Rather than rewrite the code for that security task every time the company introduces a new application, Pfizer's central architecture board makes that service available to the entire company.
"We look to see if there is a common architectural thread running through the business needs and whether we can build and support them," said Rich Lynn, vice president of global applications and architecture at Pfizer. That approach spreads the cost of services across departments and makes systems, particularly large-scale global applications, easier to support, he says.
The growing interest in architects and architecture has prompted the creation of industry organizations such as the Enterprise Architecture Interest Group (), formed earlier this year. The group of enterprise architects aims to share practices and create common terms to help educate other IT executives.
Similarly, the government sector has seen architecture rise in prominence. A , handled by the Office of Management and Budget, is meant to eliminate redundancies of IT systems across government agencies and improve information sharing among agencies.
The growing clout of architects has not gone unnoticed by technology providers. Some companies that create software that introduces significant technology shifts, like a services-oriented architecture, focus sales efforts almost exclusively on architects. Enterprise architects may not have a CIO's responsibility for an entire technology budget, but their deep technical skills are important in product decisions.
In May, Oracle President Charles Phillips said his company is targeting chief technology officers and chief architects for sales of its , because that database represents a significant architectural change. Rather than try to sell a single database that runs on one large server, Oracle is promoting "grids" of many databases that run on several cheaper hardware servers. The company is offering a free architectural assessment to aid sales and acceptance of the newer technology, Phillips said.
The right person for the right job
Definitions of the architect job title vary, and practitioners specialize in certain areas. A systems architect, for example, focuses on the hardware underlying business applications, while software architects are usually responsible for the internals of application design.
Some IT organizations are seeking to make their architectural groups more involved in day-to-day operations and product decisions.
Like other companies, office supplies firm Corporate Express built out an architecture department of about 50 people in an IT organization of about 300. But as Miller hired new people, he took pains to ensure that Corporate Express' architectural group wasn't confined to an ivory tower. Miller held an architect job at his previous employer, Sprint, but that group was essentially an IT research outfit.
"They did prototyping and product selection, but they left others to implement the systems. I thought architects should have more skin in the game," Miller said.
At Corporate Express, architects—who have varying titles and responsibilities—are involved in design matters as well as developing applications and maintaining them, even serving as part of an on-call support rotation.
As companies seek to outsource more of the IT operations, effective architecture becomes an increasingly important skill. Well-defined application blueprints make it easier for companies to outsource certain functions, according to enterprise architects.
Pfizer outsources the programming of its business applications but also employs a staff of architects, some of whom work directly for specific business units to define business requirements. Enterprise architects at Pfizer focus on establishing cross-company shared services.
General Motors, too, said that blueprints of its IT systems and processes improve its interactions with outsourcers. "The field is mature enough, and the tools are good enough, that we can now model an entire business, even one as complex as GM, and make decisions about what we should outsource," said Rich Taggart, the automaker's director of enterprise technology architecture integration and standards.
For IT professionals, an architect's job can be a promising career path. Motorola is trying to establish a curriculum to train its existing programming staff to take on architectural duties, such as business process modeling and automation. While well-defined coding tasks done by programmers are ripe for outsourcing, architects enjoy more protection from low-cost alternatives because a company's technical blueprint is closely associated with business strategy.
From a business perspective, investing in internal architectural skills is worthwhile, Motorola's Redshaw said. Much as civil engineers need to undertake lengthy yet essential projects to shore up a rundown structure, enterprise architects need to modernize a company's technology infrastructure, he said.
"If I can radically lower the cost and radically accelerate the pace of rolling out business services," Redshaw said, "the return to the business is huge."
CNET News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.