Black/White, Coding/Configuration, and other Shades of Gray

I’ve been going through the TOGAF 9 documentation, and in the Application Software section of the Technical Reference Model, there are two categories that are recognized, Business Applications and Infrastructure Applications. They define these two as follows:

Business applications … implement business processes for a particular enterprise or vertical industry. The internal structure of business applications relates closely to the specific application software configuration selected by an organization.
Infrastructure applications … provide general purpose business functionality, based on infrastructure services.

There’s a lot more to the descriptions than this, but what jumped out at me was the typical black and white breakdown of infrastructure and “not” infrastructure. Normally, it’s application and infrastructure, but since TOGAF uses the term infrastructure application, that obviously won’t work, but you get the point. What I’ve found at the organizations I’ve worked with is that there’s always a desire to draw a black and white line between the world of infrastructure and the application world. In reality, it’s not that easy to draw such a line, because it’s an ever-changing continuum. It’s far easier to see from the infrastructure side, where infrastructure used to mean physical devices, but now clearly involves software solutions ranging from application servers to, as TOGAF 9 correctly calls out in their description of infrastructure applications, commercial of the shelf products.

The biggest challenge in the whole infrastructure/application continuum is knowing when to shift your thinking from coding to configuration. As things become more commoditized and more like infrastructure, your thinking has to shift to that of configuration. If you continue with a coding and customization mentality, you’re likely investing significant resources into an area without much potential for payback. There are parallels between this thinking and the cloud computing and software as a service movements. You should use this thinking when making decisions on where to leverage these technologies and techniques. If you haven’t changed your thinking from coding to configuration, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to effectively evaluate SaaS or cloud providers. When things are offered as a service, your interactions with them are going to be a configuration activity based upon the interfaces exposed, and it’s very unlikely that any interface will have as much flexibility as a programming language. If you make good decisions on where things should be configured rather than coded, you’ll be in good shape.

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