What is enterprise architecture?

Enterprise IT architecture is about aligning applications, data and infrastructure with IT Strategy. It involves developing technical standards, road maps and high level design and working closely with others to make it all happen.

Most of us don't realise that there is an underlying system to the technology and applications we use every day so we we caught up with Dave Smith, who is responsible for enterprise IT architecture at Oxford University, and asked him to tell us some more about his role.

Have you always been an enterprise architect?  

We all had to start somewhere, and I started out working as a developer for a small company that sold pension management solutions. Some of our customers were moving from green screen terminals to Windows. This meant that before we could install the software, we needed to build desktops, configure database servers and put in the network. The company was very small and so for ‘we’ read ‘me’! I guess this was enterprise architecture in its infancy and influenced every job I’ve had since then.  

I joined IT Services at Oxford University in 2017. It’s been a very busy few years and there’s been so much change, which has created lots of interesting challenges and, importantly, opportunities.  

What is enterprise IT architecture?  

Enterprise architecture is all about technology change. Simply, it helps us answer two key questions: 

  1. If we as a university want to achieve x then what is the impact on our technology? For instance, if we want to reach more prospective students then we might need a new customer relationship management (CRM) solution and a web portal. 
  2. If we change a component within our architecture then what is the impact on other aspects of our technology landscape? For instance, using the example above of a new CRM, then what other related software might need changes, would there be any infrastructure or service delivery changes required, or security implications etc.? 

The information needed to answer these questions is also extremely valuable for other activities such as developing strategies or implementing university-wide programmes of change.  

What excites you about your role?  

A huge part of my role, which I really enjoy, involves talking to people and working with colleagues in different disciplines to achieve a common goal.  

I love learning about new things and then finding places to make use of of what I’ve learned, particularly if I am helping people exploit technology to make their lives better.  

How do we make architecture work in IT Services?  

What was previously only me, recently became a small group with the creation of the Enterprise Solution Architecture team bringing together colleagues with similar work and skills from different parts of IT Services. Our work is overseen by the Solution Design Assurance group which in turn reports into the Portfolio Steering Group and the IT Architecture Advisory group which are themselves part of the IT Committee.  

We work with all parts of IT Services: on projects finding/designing solutions; with services on roadmaps; with infrastructure on capability development (hosting, networking, storage, database, cloud, security, mobility etc.); with information security and procurement to ensure that purchases fit with other software at the university. We also work closely with external partners such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft to ensure solutions are compatible and as future-proofed as possible at the time, but we know this will always change. 

We also work with colleagues across Divisions, Colleges and University Administration and Services (UAS), working on scoping, road mapping, prioritisation, connecting and signposting colleagues as needed regarding their technology needs. 

From enterprise application design to artificial intelligence and everything in between, we are open to all and any conversations that could benefit from some architectural input.   

Are there different types of IT architecture?

There are several ways of looking at IT architecture and, used effectively, it can influence outcomes of IT projects for the better.  Some of the different types and uses of IT architecture include: 

  • Application – this relates to the systems/programmes that users interact with, think of a finance, HR, web content etc.  
  • Technical – this is about the underlying components needed to run applications e.g., networks, storage, identity and access – these often cut across multiple applications or other services. 
  • Business - this relates to the way the University is organised to achieve its objectives e.g., functions (how we are organised), capability (what we do), processes (how we do it).  
  • Data - this is about how the information used to support the University is documented and connected.  
  • Security – this is to some extent common across all architectures, but can be used to show the specific areas of interest for information security and security operations e.g., security monitoring, security applications, data connections, user access points  
  • Enterprise – this is a layering of all the above, showing the dependencies and interconnections and informing decision-making about new systems and services. 

What are main the challenges you face in your role? 

New challenges emerge nearly every day.  Some of the bigger ones that crop up a lot include: 

  • Size and scale – the number of people, places, processes and technologies in use is massive – trying to bring all this information together in a useful format can be very challenging. 
  • Legacy – across the University, we have over 200 key applications in use at any one time, some are very long in the tooth and take up a lot of time, and money, to keep running.  
  • Digital - the growing trend towards ‘digital first’ changes the focus from applications and processes to users and tasks which has an impact on every part of the architecture. Accommodating this amount of change is a huge challenge 

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is prioritisation. Cutting across all the above, decisions about what should happen first, or what is more important, are incredibly difficult to agree on, especially as so many different people/roles are involved. My role involves trying to get to the bottom of this and helping to find the right answers, or at least the best compromise. 

Can you tell us about some of your achievements so far?  

Working closely with colleagues in IT services, I’ve led or been a part of: 

  • Developing technical standards, application catalogues, and other non-functional requirements for the University. 
  • Building the success of the Solution Design Authority to improve outcomes for IT project proposals and increase engagement with stakeholders across the University. 
  • Working with colleagues across the collegiate University to create a view of architecture for their own area of work and defining projects to deliver that view. 
  • Building a network of people interested in the IT architecture of the University. 
  • Working with IT projects to provide architectural input and advice. 
  • Assisting with vendor selection for IT products and services, embedding architectural elements into the processes to ensure that different systems and services work with each other in a coherent way. 

What’s next for enterprise architecture at Oxford? 

We need to think about how we accommodate agile ways of working and innovation into our architecture, this means that our architecture must evolve to support users as they experiment with modern technologies, provide more efficient ways to quickly roll out fresh solutions, and embrace opportunities rather than just exploiting certainties.  

To help develop this, I’m keen to build a professional community of practice around IT architecture at the University. This group would help identify opportunities and improve the quality and consistency of the architecture products such as design documents, reference solutions, segment architectures (application, data etc.) used across the University. I'll share more information in due course.

Further information about IT architecture at Oxford can be found on the IT Strategy and Governance  and  Enterprise Modelling sites.