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Web 2.0 applications pose challenges and rewards

Web 2.0 technologies are in demand by workers and customers alike. Implementing them into existing IT infrastructures and managing them effectively are the next steps for SMBs.

Incorporating Web 2.0 applications into your IT infrastructure isn't that different from incorporating other user-generated initiatives: Accept it as a fact of life, embrace it as an opportunity, keep a good IT foundation in place, test everything, and listen to user feedback. But whatever you do, don't drop a Web 2.0 application to the bottom of the development queue. If you do, your users and competitors will leave you in the dust.

At small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), embracing Web 2.0 applications can be a matter of corporate survival. "Web 2.0 is being employed much more on customer-facing websites than for in-house applications," said Julie Craig, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. "If you're going up against a Progressive Insurance or Countrywide Mortgage, regardless of your size, you're going to move to Web 2.0. Your competitors have flashy websites, and you have to compete with them."

Not only are customers demanding Web 2.0 features on company sites, but they're also expecting these sometimes complicated applications to serve them as quickly as any other Web feature. This provides an added challenge, Craig said, thanks to the resource demands of XML and fat graphics files that Web 2.0 applications often use.

And IT managers shouldn't be under any delusions that Web 2.0 hasn't already made its way into their SMBs, according to Steve Borsch, principal of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based consultancy Marketing Directions Inc. and author of the blog Connecting the Dots. IT professionals have to recognize that their users may be utilizing outside Web 2.0 services to set up applications that circumvent the firewall, which in turn could lead to massive unsecured file swapping and networks becoming bogged down.

"If I'm sitting across the table from an IT manager from a midsized company, my point is that you already have employees using Web 2.0, whether it's YouTube, Facebook, MySpace or something else," Borsch said. "Transparency has become the order of the day. People want the opportunity to shape a company's products and services."

Transparency has become the order of the day. People want the opportunity to shape a company's products and services.

Steve Borsch
principalMarketing Directions Inc.

Both Borsch and Craig advise IT managers to familiarize themselves with Web 2.0 so they can safely implement new applications. The first step is to identify which technologies and services can help the company, then take control of the Web 2.0 applications that users have already brought in on their own.

"I would take the top 10 categories of Web 2.0 applications, and I would look at the ones that are enterprise-ready. For example, if I want to do video blogging, there are hosted solutions that are secure and available," Borsch said. "I would make some choices of what [users] can and cannot use. Then you are going to have to do some sort of assessment of what happens when people start using this stuff in the cloud."

One IT executive who has assessed the impact of Web 2.0 applications on his organization's technology infrastructure is Robert D. Gourley, chief technology officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

DIA has utilized blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 features for several years. Recently, the agency rolled out a mashup application that allows users to meld information from a variety of sources, such as RSS feeds, blogs, mapping tools and traditional databases. The key to the application, Gourley said, is its user interface developed using JackBe Corp.'s Presto, which allows users to select data from any source and interact with it in new ways.

Web 2.0 success

But ongoing monitoring is just one of the final steps in a long process. Gourley shared his suggestions for successfully integrating Web 2.0 applications into existing IT infrastructures:

  • Governance: A strong governance process that puts the leadership in charge of 100% of the IT activities in the organization is essential, he said. "Components of strong governance include a vision that is well-articulated and understood, a strategy for how to execute that vision, and then guidelines that establish the SOA. Then you can start to field Web 2.0 applications."
  • Test: And then test again. "We test and test and test, and then we have an independent body test it," Gourley said. Understand that these are new types of applications, and developing test criteria is an iterative process where the feedback from users helps to define the actual test.
  • Model and monitor: Proper modeling is needed to ensure that users get adequate bandwidth to use Web 2.0 applications and services. "It's the same with server loads. Our program management team begins by estimating them. We model that and test it, and even now, as we are fielding this, we are watching very carefully to make sure we've judged the server loads correctly."
  • User feedback: Develop a system that allows users to report on their activities. This can take any of several forms. "There's no single answer," Gourley said. "We have a single trouble-ticket system, for example. That is associated with a single FAQ system."
  • Recognize the differences: It is important for IT pros to recognize that Web 2.0 applications are of a different breed than what they're used to. Web 2.0 "is so new and so different, it's the kind of thing that requires senior management's attention because not everyone is going to understand it," Gourley said.

James M. Connolly is a contributing technology writer based in Norwood, Mass. Let us know what you think about this tip; email

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