Master Class

www.cio.com –

When CIO Enterprise set out to provide valuable and accessible information on the IT nitty-gritty to non-IT execs in the form of the Learning Curve column, the goal was simple. It was, as stated in an early mission statement, for the column to be "A technology primer for non-IS executives, defining technology buzzwords (data mining, for example) and explaining their applications to business."

We have tried to keep you up to speed on the latest trends and terms, always with an eye toward what's hot and what's most important to our non-IT readership. Yet with the maddening rate of change in IT and the frustratingly brief time available for poring over magazines, we know you might have missed a Learning Curve or two over the past two years. So here are Learning Curve's greatest hits, so to speak, conveniently packaged together in this last edition of CIO Enterprise. Not available in stores!

What Is ERP?

ERP (EXCUSE ME) STANDS FOR enterprise resource planning, a software system that aims to serve as a backbone for your whole business. It integrates key business and management processes to provide a sky-level view of much of what's going on in your organization. ERP tracks company financials, human resources data and (if applicable) all the manufacturing information such as where you put your inventory and when it needs to be taken from the parts warehouse to the shop floor.

The leader in ERP market share, and the one that invented the market to an extent, is the German company SAP AG with its R/3 software. Other big players include PeopleSoft Inc., Oracle Corp., Baan Co. NV and J.D. Edwards & Co.

Big whoop. We've always had software for those processes.

Yes, but each piece of the puzzle was provided by a different software vendor, and those pieces typically didn't talk to one another. The accounting system didn't exchange data with the manufacturing system, for example. At least not without a great deal of poking and prodding and rewriting from the techies in IS.

The idea behind ERP is that the software needs to communicate across functions. With an ERP system, the financial software can cut an accounts payable check as soon as the loading dock clerk confirms that the goods have been received in inventory. Similarly, the accounts receivable module can generate an invoice as soon as the shipping clerk says the finished goods are on the truck to the customer. All this is done with a minimum of human intervention and paperwork.

ERP aims to replicate business processes (how do we record a sale? how do we verify hourly workers' paychecks?) in software, guide the employees responsible for those processes through them step by step and automate as many procedures as desired.

Sounds great. Is there a downside?

Only if you consider multimillion-dollar project failures a downside. The promise of ERP is great but so is the expense in terms of time, effort and money. Implementing the software in a company usually involves changing business processes, that is, the way people do their jobs. So employee resistance to these changes can be a major thorn in a company's side and usually requires that executives hone their change management skills. With careful planning and lots of elbow grease, though, ERP can work and make many an enterprise work better.

-- Derek Slater

What Is Infrastructure?

TO UNDERSTAND INFRASTRUCTURE, buckle up your virtual toolbelt and think like a carpenter for a minute. When you're building a house, you'll discover that most of the important stuff is invisible. The foundation, framing, wiring and plumbing are not attention-grabbers, but boy, you'd sure notice if they weren't there. Computing infrastructure works in much the same way. It consists of the physical components of a computing setup: the wiring, routers, switches, operating systems, middleware, mainframes, servers and sometimes desktop machines.

How is infrastructure different from architecture?

Architecture and infrastructure are often confused. To think in terms of house-building again, the architect designs what the house will look like and how it will fit together. That's the architecture. The builders put in the wires, pipes and frames. That's the infrastructure. The architecture is the blueprint or design. The infrastructure is the physical stuff.

Sounds like infrastructure is important.

It is. For many companies, however, infrastructure is the Rodney Dangerfield of the computing world: It gets no respect. Nobody wants to think about infrastructure because, let's face it, glamorous it ain't. What's more, most business executives don't want to fund infrastructure improvements, which have no immediately discernible business payback. What manager wants to authorize $100,000 for his department's share of a network upgrade?

But a sound infrastructure can mean rapid access to online information (and less thumb-twiddling while you idle in a network traffic jam), fewer system crashes, quicker e-mail and, generally, PCs that function with a minimum of trouble. A reliable infrastructure can also ensure the success of any future technology endeavors. There is no use developing a fancy knowledge-sharing intranet, for example, if the network freezes when users try to access it.

A company with a solid infrastructure has probably put in some serious time and energy to get it that way. The IS department has been able to optimize the network to work most efficiently and can add functionality to the infrastructure without having to disturb what's already in place. Building a solid infrastructure forces a company to pay attention to the basics before it tries to get fancy, and it's not easy. But, then again, when you were a kid, you couldn't eat your dessert before your peas. Why should it be any different now?

-- Carol Hildebrand

Architectural Digest

THE TERM ARCHITECTURE can refer to the design of a single computer. In corporate context, however, it typically means the layout of a company's computing systems, both physically -- the kinds of computers you use and where they're located -- and logically, how the processing workload is distributed or divided.

The corporate computing architecture is not terribly different from the corporate decision-making structure. When you founded your company, there were only six employees and you could do it all: You kept the books, ran the sales calls and did the marketing analysis. By the time your enterprise cracked the Fortune 1000 though, you could no longer run all the corporate functions.

So you installed some vice presidents and department managers to offload some of your duties and architected a plan indicating how the functions are interconnected and where the decision-making power lies.

How many architectures are there?

The permutations are infinite, but generally every architecture can be categorized as centralized or distributed. Once upon a time, nearly everybody had the same centralized architecture: SNA, the Systems Network Architecture created by IBM Corrp. with a mainframe or two in the data center and a bunch of dumb terminals (dumb because the terminals don't do any thinking for themselves; they only relay messages from the mainframe). SNA dictated what protocols the terminals used to talk to the mainframe, what devices served as intermediaries between the terminals and mainframe and how to connect printers -- the whole shebang.

Distributed system architectures started to gain popularity in the '80s when the mainframe was replaced by a smattering of smaller servers or hosts spread throughout the enterprise. Client/server is a distributed architecture. In its simplest iterations, the servers store the data and the clients analyze it according to the user's wishes.

The boundaries between centralized and distributed architectures are getting fuzzier these days because a lot of companies are keeping their data on small servers while simultaneously moving all those servers to a central station. If the processing of the data is going to happen in numerous places, you can reasonably say you have a distributed architecture; if the vast majority of processing happens in one place, you have centralized architecture.

How do I choose an architecture?

Each architecture has different strengths and weaknesses. Distributed architectures arose partly because centralized mainframe models were cursed as inflexible and expensive. On the other hand, it's harder to manage distributed architectures, fine-tune their performance and pinpoint trouble spots when something goes wrong (as it inevitably does with computers). Zealots will argue about which model is better, but one thing everyone agrees on is that changing from one to the other is an enormous pain in the neck.

-- D.S.

Software Essentials

IF YOU'VE BEEN AROUND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY or computers for a while, you have probably run into these two terms: system software and application software. The distinction between the two is important. Without the former, your computer won't run. And without the latter, your computer -- no matter how powerful -- won't do much to help run your business.

What is system software?

The simple answer is that system software is the stuff that makes your computer work. It's roughly analogous to the stem of the human brain -- you've got to have it to keep breathing; but with just the stem you aren't likely to win any chess tournaments or earn an MBA degree. System software includes the computer's basic operating system, whether that's Windows 98 or Mac OS on your home computer or something like MVS on a gargantuan mainframe in the data center. The term also usually encompasses any software used to manage the computer and network, which includes diagnostic software and anything used to tune up the computer's performance. Novell NetWare and other network management packages thus fall under system software. In the mainframe world, system software would include all kinds of utility packages with scary names like "Disk Defragmenter."

And application software?

Application software trains the PC's brain for higher cognitive functions rather than just keeping the PC alive and connected to other computers. Think of it this way: Applications apply the computer's thinking power to business tasks such as tracking the general ledger or billing your customers.

Software that clearly falls on the application side of the line includes manufacturing, financial and human resources software, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages (such as SAP R/3 and PeopleSoft), which incorporate all those functions and more. Other examples of application software include CAD and various engineering packages, groupware like Lotus Notes, supply chain management software and a raft of industry-specific programs for everything from routing railcars to tracking clinical trials for pharmaceuticals.

So system software runs your computer while application software runs your business?

The line between the two kinds of software is somewhat blurry, depending on who's doing the talking. In the gray zone between them, you might include database management software like Oracle8, Sybase or DB2, which handle a very general sort of task -- storing and manipulating data and records -- and often must be further programmed in order to perform a specific application. Some operating systems incorporate basic database management functionality, so some people call DBMS system software, while others simply call it application software.

Windows users might wonder which category Solitaire belongs to. Sorry, we'll leave that up to Microsoft.

-- D.S.

The Nitty-Gritty on NCs

THERE'S NO BREAKTHROUGH TECHNOLOGY behind the surge of interest in network computers (NCs) -- it's mostly stuff that has been around for years. Rather, NCs attract attention because the technology, although not new, is supposed to save businesses time and money. So to understand NCs, one must figure out how old technology is supposed to add up to new business value.

How do NCs work?

Network computers are machines with very little storage capacity and no floppy drive, which means they lack the ability to store software applications and files locally. Instead, an NC accesses anything it needs from a server on the network, which serves as a software repository (kind of like constantly sending out for takeout instead of stocking your own cupboards). Unlike a PC, you can't run an NC by itself; it needs a network and a server, not surprising given its name.

Why would I want something that's basically a lobotomized PC?

NCs have been touted as a great way to cut the costs of maintaining personal computers, which can add up to a surprisingly hefty chunk of change. In fact, research company GartnerGroup Inc. estimates PC maintenance can add up to $10,000 a year per computer, give or take a few thousand. (Gartner counts such costs as technical support, maintenance, purchase costs for all hardware and software upgrades, informal trouble-shooting by coworkers and network costs.) Multiply that by a corporation's worth of computers, and you're talking some real money.

NCs can also make maintenance tasks less time-consuming for IS and provide one convenient point of control. Take, for example, the issue of software upgrades. Instead of having a tech support person upgrade software on every single machine, he or she can perform the upgrade once on the server and the NCs will automatically access the new version. Not only does this make the network techie's life simpler, but IS regains control of just what software gets installed.

Who uses NCs?

Not that many people just yet. Most companies are perched firmly on the fence, waiting to see whether one particular vendor faction will successfully impose its particular NC standard on the nascent technology, and slow sales reflect that. Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. would like you to buy one version of the NC, while an opposing group led by Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Scott McNealy and Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison, chief proselytizers for the network computer, would like you to buy another. Most analysts say the NC will find its niche in places like call centers or retail environments. Users in a call center, for example, access a computer to execute simple, repetitive tasks on a shared database that resides on a network. A PC, with its superior computational power and ability to independently process data, would be wasted in this environment.

-- C.H.

Your OS at Work

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW It, but your operating system is one of your closest and most loyal coworkers. From the moment you turn on your computer in the early morning until the late hours of the workday when you shut it down, your operating system is working, interpreting your every move and "talking" to all of your computer's pro-grams. You might say it runs your worklife.

What does an operating system do for me?

A better question might be, What doesn't it do? For starters, an operating system (OS) is the "interpreter" between you and all of the software and hardware on your computer's system. Just as an interpreter helps communication among foreign diplomats, your OS translates your commands ("open file") into the 1s and 0s the computer can understand. But more than merely interpreting, the OS becomes a traffic cop. If you're running two applications on your PC at the same time, the OS juggles the computer's resources, such as the "thinking time" that each application demands from the main processor, so that your spreadsheet can keep crunching numbers in the background while you sneak in a couple of holes of Microsoft Golf. The OS also controls internal components, such as memory, external devices -- monitors, modems, storage devices -- and the look and feel of the user interface.

How many kinds of operating systems exist?

Too many to list here, but you've probably heard of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh OS, IBM Corp.'s MVS and the various "flavors" of Unix (see Buzzwords, left), which top the list of operating systems used today. Different OSs are designed for different kinds of computers; Windows runs on PCs, whereas MVS runs on mainframes.

An important distinction to note: A desktop OS, such as Windows 2000, runs a single computer; a network operating system (NOS), such as Novell NetWare, controls how groups of individual computers and other devices communicate. An NOS allows users to share files across a network and to access shared devices such as printers, scanners, servers and gateways.

What happens to my OS when my computer crashes?

Your system may be affected slightly, but a crash usually will not cause permanent damage. Many factors come into play when one occurs: the design of the OS itself, the nature and severity of the crash, what files and applications were open at the time, and what procedures are used to recover from the crash. A crash may affect the stability of the OS, which may make another one more likely, leaving the OS more unstable and possibly causing the equivalent of a concussion in your computer's brain.

-- Tom Wailgum

What Are Extranets?

IT MAY SOUND LIKE A TECHNOLOGY FOR GEEKS ONLY. But many people use extranets every day without realizing it -- to track packaged goods, order products from their suppliers or access customer assistance from other companies. Log on to the FedEx site to check the status of that package you sent this morning, for example, and you've just used an extranet in one of its simplest forms. An extranet is a mechanism based on Internet and Web technology for communicating both privately and selectively with your customers and business partners.

What's the difference between an extranet, an intranet and the Internet?

First there was the Internet, which is available for everyone to use. Then businesses got smart and started developing their own intranets that used the same friendly Web interface but put up firewalls so that only employees could see the information on the site. Finally, the extranet was created. It finds itself somewhere in between -- there's still a firewall, but you allow only selected outsiders, such as business partners and customers, inside.

Why would you use extranets?

When done correctly, extranets provide a safe way to allow transactional business-to-business activities and can save your company some serious time and money. The automotive industry uses extranets to cut down on its redundant ordering processes and keep suppliers up to date on parts and design changes, allowing quuicker response times to suppliers' problems and questions. Suppliers can receive proposals, submit bids, provide documents, even collect payments through an extranet site. An extranet has restricted (password-protected) access, so it may be connected directly to each party's internal systems.

Does every company need one?

Many view extranets as the next era in Web development. While other business-to-business communications, such as electronic data interchange (EDI), are out there, an extranet is more user-friendly because of its Web interface and allows for less regimented and more ad-hoc inquiries. Before a company can make an attempt at harnessing the capabilities and profits gained from using an extranet, a fully functioning intranet has to be in place.

The benefits of extranets, such as reduced time to market and cost of doing business, and faster access to partner information, may be outweighed by the costs -- security, Web servers and development, legacy systems integration, ongoing support and maintenance. Extranets require a large amount of IS time and energy, much more than what it takes to get an intranet or Web site up and running, which may place it at the bottom of the IS group's to-do list.

In time, companies may be forced to use an extranet with their suppliers and customers. Even now, some large corporations say they will not do business with companies that won't be connected to a secure extranet in the coming years.

-- T.W.

What Is Bandwidth?

IN THE PARLANCE OF COMPUTER JOCKS, bandwidth describes the amount of data a network can transport in a certain period of time. In other words, bandwidth is a capacity for rate of transfer, usually expressed in bits per second. Think of it this way: Your corporate network is like a highway. In a given moment, only one car per lane can pass a given point on that highway. During rush hour, bottlenecks cause traffic to slow to a crawl, and you arrive home late for dinner. Too many cars, not enough lanes. It's the same when your network has too much information flowing between computers and not enough bandwidth. Everything slows down, and in extreme cases, your data may never get to where it's going.

OK. So what does bandwidth mean for my company?

Every time you communicate with another person or another computer (like the server or mainframe) via your computer, you are moving bits of information over the network. Some activities, such as sending e-mail, create very little traffic. They're like compact cars, if you will. By comparison, if you send a large document or an engineering diagram, that's more like driving a tractor-trailer through the net-work because you're sending lots and lots of bits. The more people using your corporate network, the more congested the network becomes. At first, that may simply slow down the system and force you to sit twiddling your thumbs while your computer retrieves the information you've requested. If the overcrowding gets too bad, data may get lost in transit because it crashes into other stuff.

If our computers are slowing down, does that mean I should buy more network bandwidth?

Possibly. Older networks (and even modern modems) tend to move data at slower rates. But buying more bandwidth often means scrapping what's in place and upgrading to a different kind of network technology altogether. You can't always pave over the old road to build a bigger one; you have to dig up the old road first.

Many networks today are based on a technology called Ethernet, which has a standard bandwidth of 10Mbps (10 million bits per second); in one second, 10 megabits of data can move through any given spot on the network. And the new Fast Ethernet has transmission speeds of 100Mbps. As technology continues to evolve, even more advanced networks have been developed that offer transmission rates greater than 1Gbps (that's ggigabits, or 1 billion bits, per second).

Of course, the bottleneck that's hampering your computer's performance could be located in some area other than the network. The central servers might just be too scrawny, or they might need a faster way to get at the data in central storage. It'll take some careful analysis to locate the problem. And then, you can't just throw money at it (music to your ears, no doubt). You'll have to evaluate what will provide the most bang for your buck.

-- D.S.

Wary of Groupware?

GROUPWARE IS NOTORIOUSLY TOUGH TO DEFINE. Its naysayers (and there are many) might describe it as teamwork software that's more powerful than mere e-mail and less useful. Its proponents, on the other hand, will tell you that groupware is a kind of software that functions much like the conductor does in an orchestra. While the conductor doesn't actually create any music, he or she makes all the musicians sound better by helping them stay on the same beat and in harmony. Similarly, team members are more productive when they collaborate and share ideas. Groupware provides a framework for that teamwork.

What specifically does teamwork software do?

Groupware packages are diverse in the functions they offer. Most include a shared database where team members can work on common documents and hold electronic discussions. Some include group schedulers, calendars and/or e-mail. Others focus on real-time meeting support. Combined, these pieces allow team members to work on a single document, discuss ideas online, maintain records, and prioritize and schedule team work and meetings. A true groupware package should include several of these functions, not just one.

By that narrow definition, examples of groupware include Lotus Development Corp.'s Lotus Notes, Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange, Novell Inc.'s GroupWise, Netscape Communications Corp.'s Collabra Share and Ventana Corp.'s GroupSystems. Some software companies are trying to co-opt the term to describe document management software or pure e-mail packages. That, however, is playing loose with the terminology, adding to the confusion about what groupware means.

Why are people so excited about groupware?

Groupware, when implemented correctly, allows companies to share information better. At CIO, for example, we brainstorm to come up with the best topics for our articles. Using Lotus Notes to facilitate our story development process, I type a rough idea in the Notes discussion database, then await my colleagues' responses or suggested sources. I can have daily online discussions with writers and editors to determine the merits of each idea. Since the process is ongoing, I don't have to wait for a big meeting to get people thinking about my proposal, and they, in turn, can respond minutes or days later at their convenience (particularly useful for our bureau on the Left Coast). In addition, Notes lets us develop a custom contacts database application, so we can share our IS sources.

So why do some say it's less useful than e-mail?

That contacts database I mentioned? Nobody uses it. Groupware tends to require changes in the way users work, which means it hits much more cultural resistance than e-mail. It's a bit unfair to say groupware is less useful than e-mail, but because it's so much harder to learn, it demands a lot more training (and prodding) for end users. Users don't always dive in as they typically do with e-mail or intranets. For this reason, some companies prefer instead to use those two technologies to facilitate teamwork. So be warned: Buying a groupware package, plugging it in and expecting a magic transformation to occur is an E-Z Bake recipe for failure. Using groupware successfully requires a commitment to cultural and process change from management down.

-- D.S.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies