Challenge of Scale within the Enterprise - Part 1

  • 13-Sep-2012

"Scale" is a tricky concept in technology. In the world of packaged applications of the kind we evaluate, people will say scale when talking about very different things, like feature breadth and scenario diversity (scope), functional depth and richness (complexity), or transaction volumes and traffic intensity (usage).

Since all those meanings are relevant, notions of scale can start to become vague and generic, and take on a marketing-speak quality.

Still, I believe the term has value. Over the coming weeks, we'll be highlighting some specific considerations around scalability in each of the technologies we cover.

Not a Super-Sized Department

The fact is, many of our subscribers face significant challenges of scale -- challenges that many software vendors, in their pursuit of mass markets, simply cannot accommodate. In countless conversations with enterprise architects from major global firms over the past decade, we've heard customers express a consistent frustration: "Vendors treat us like a super-sized department, rather than a complex, multifaceted organization."

With rare exceptions, the modern enterprise is not a super-sized department. To be sure, the enterprise may want to instill some commonality to its diverse activity. This could mean executing as a unified team globally, perhaps speaking with one voice from a public marketing perspective, and providing a common digital workplace platform for all its employees. But doing this with tens of thousands of employees serving customers across dozens of different marketplaces is no simple task. Technology needs to help here, not get in the way.

Some General Challenges of Scale

Rather than define scale as X number of employees and Y amount of sales, let's review some challenges that emerge when trying to implement technologies at larger enterprises. Not every organization faces every challenge below, but when they start piling up, the technology choices you face start to become qualitatively different.

Identity management
Here's where tools that can scale will quickly surpass those that can't. It's not enough to be able to connect to an LDAP directory for authentication. Scalability here means being able to connect to multiple different identity stores (the inevitable result of mergers & acquisitions, if nothing else), as well as support complex role and group structures for authorization in every facet of the software. Surprisingly few of the 200 products we cover can do this, or do it well.

Global Footprint
Firms with a global or near-global footprint face significant IT challenges. It's not just that the software they deploy needs to support multiple languages (although that remains an issue, especially in the Social Collaboration marketplace). The tools they implement need to support multiple geographic concepts, such as regions as well as countries, and staff that may be matrixed geographically as well as functionally.

Multiple regulatory and legal regimes
It seems fashionable now to dismiss regulatory and legal obligations as uncool hassles best left ignored. Large enterprises don't have the luxury. They have to "play it by the book" in ways that smaller companies often do not -- or more precisely, play by multiple different books because they have to work amid diverse (often conflicting) regulatory and legal authorities. If their IT systems can't relate, the enterprise can suffer enormous frustration and expense.

High profile
When Acme Towing's public website gets hacked, few people pay attention. When Amazon or Apple get hacked, people notice. Larger enterprises have to pay extra care about using tools that are constantly targeted, even if those tools (like Joomla) are eminently securable. Large enterprises want to be agile like everyone else, but their stakes in the game typically have them seeking something more reliable than "public beta." And of course, higher profile also means more likelihood of lawsuits, especially in litigation-happy North America.

Intense KM needs
The largest enterprises care deeply about knowledge management, even if they don't actually label it that. They know that to succeed at scale, they need effective ways of cataloging and sharing best practices, even if it is simple approaches to answering questions or locating expertise. Enterprises can (and should) debate how to realize their KM needs, but ignoring them entirely is a small-company luxury.

High usage volumes and variable spikes
Big-name brands can experience high volumes as well as spikes in traffic to public-facing sites and applications. Some firms, like those in ecommerce or media segments, face particularly daunting challenges above and beyond the size of their operation. And then within the digital workplace, employees at a larger enterprise are often geographically dispersed and can also put unpredictable demand on internal systems. I've seen more departmental tools simply fall over at enterprise volumes than I care to remember.

Use-case diversity
This is the big one. Many software platforms can support a single use-case across multiple units (e.g., contracts management in an ECM system like OpenText), or multiple use-cases in a single unit (e.g., forms processing in SharePoint). This is not that same thing as deploying platform that can solve business problems across the spectrum, around the world. Technologies that can scale to the largest enterprises also have to address a diversity of business lines, sometimes even competing with one another internally. This tension between scratching a local itch versus managing enterprise-wide diversity lies behind the popularity of quick-to-deply, SaaS-based offerings on the one hand, and the seemingly inevitable ceilings that large enterprises encounter with SaaS-based solutions on the other.

So what?

This post is just a brief tour. In our evaluation research we dig into greater depth on these issues to differentiate among vendors.

And over the next few months on this blog, we'll take a closer look at each technology stream we cover, to focus on the unique challenges of scale, and how the largest enterprises can discriminate among vendors who truly understand them.

Part 2: Enterprise Search at Scale

Part 3: Social and Collaboration Platforms at Scale

Part 4: Media Asset Management at Scale

Part 5: Digital Campaign Management at Scale

Part 6: Cloud File-Sharing at Scale

Part 7: Digital Asset Management at Scale

Part 8: Web Content & Experience Management at Scale