Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cloud prototyping and Kolb's Learning Cycle

There is a lot of attention on Cloud platforms (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS), but not so many present how they actually will move to it. This blog is about prototyping core business to such a platform (eg. Amazon Web Services' Beanstalk). It’s also about utilizing Klob’s Learning Cycle in organizational development. An even harder problem, until you realize that your organization has to experience a common vision.

I have earlier presented results from our Proof of Concept (Tax Norways PoC Results). That prototype was about designing software for the "cloud" (In-memory, Big Data); to make it easier to maintain, cost less and scale linearly. (I had a talk at QCon London 2013 about this)
This time its about how we can simplify our business and still make sure we comply to legislation. Its about using Domain Driven Design to establish the ubiquitous language and aggregates. Its about engaging business and stakeholders.
Innovation emerges from the collaboration between disciplines.
This is what Enterprise Architecture is all about: Improving business though IT.
What business?
The need to clean up a very complex set of forms representing mandatory reporting from the population to the Tax Administration. Simplifying for small businesses is our focus, by addressing 13 forms (the total is 50 forms, but larger businesses and other tax domains is not addressed now). Main strategy for this simplification is to collect timely facts through a responsive and “smart” wizard made available for the public. There was already a business project working on this involving 20-30 people. They had a concept ready, but was unsure how to proceed. And I had blueprints of our future systems. 
Is the Public Sector able to innovate?
Yes We Can!
Why Prototype?
Kolb's learning cycle
Lets experience something together! Ever noticed how people understand the same text or the same specification, in different ways? That is one of the major challenges in Computer Science, expectations and requirements most often are not aligned. We used Kobl's to achieve a collective understanding of our vision in this area, combining the individual skills of our organization. With this support we managed to combine deep knowledge to create something new and highly useful.

We prototyped to make this cycle come alive. Making very different disciplines; people from business (lawyers, economists and accountants), user interaction (UI designers), IT, Planning and Sponsors come together over a running application. We have run demos every 14. days (Active experimentation and Concrete experience) and discussed calculations, concepts and terms (as will be part of the new and improved ubiquitous Business Language). After the demo the participants used their Reflective observation and Abstract understanding to write new requirements to the Backlog. This is a “silver bullet” for a team fighting a complex domain. No Excel sheet, presentation or report would have made this possible.

In technical terms its more than just a prototype. It is a full blown information model, implementation, and a full fledged stack (although without database). And we know it will perform with massive scale. We have now defined the Java classes and the xml for the document store (Continual Aggregate Store).
But for business its a prototype; as we have not covered all areas or all detail, but shown how the majority of complex issues must be tackled. The prototype will be used as a study within new areas. Also remember that for business, IT is just one piece. There is also timing, financing, customer scoping, migration, integration, processes and organisational issues.

The beautiful prototype
The domain has 13 forms with some 1500+ fields. The solution now consists of 6-7 aggregates and
Navigation at left, income facts at right
some 600+ fields altogether, but any user will only fill in a subset of these. We have utilised the latest in responsive design, to give as much as possible on a web platform. Everything is saved as you work and "backend" business logic is run for calculations and validations. Logic is not duplicated, the user is working towards the same backend as our own case handlers. (There are no Form anymore, as the user is working synchronously with the backend. Old legacy systems need an asynchronous front end, and get a costly duplication of the business logic.)

Previously there was a “back-and-forth” work process through 11 hard to comprehend steps, now the structure is sequential through 5 simple steps.
Previously the user had to do a lot of manual calculations and book-keeping, now the prototype collect facts and calculate for them.
Expert in your hands
Previously the user had to know what forms to use, now the prototype guides the user though it.

Making the impossible possible
At the end there is adjustment GUI of sliders that solves what was previously hard to comprehend. Only experts with many years experience could do this. A goal for us is that normal people can report their own tax-form in an optimal way. We have done user testing and got very positive feedback. It is much easier for a user to report on real world things (assets, income, costs, dept), and let the application do the calculations.
Now that we see the result, it looks so simple, sublime and beautiful.

The key artefact is the new set of fully unit testable java classes (information, logic and aggregates) of the core domain. Ready to be deployed on some PaaS. This core is now much simpler, simplifying all aspects of systems development and integration. This is how we increase the ability to change and decrease maintenance cost.

The platform
We are using Amazon Web Services (AWS) and have deployed the prototype in Apache and PHP Beanstalk containers. This prototype continues where the last prototype stopped, and porting that code has proven to be simple. Also we are using plain Java and HazelCast on the backend. The backend contains all business logic and information. There is very little duplication of code, and the backend is used all the time as the user works his way through the wizard.
The front end has HTML5/CSS3, Javascript, JSON and REST.
AWS has been really simple (time saving) and cheap. The bill is about $100 for the test environments after 5 months! :) Also we have proven (again) that if you do your design right, you can quite easily move to another "cloud" platform (see deploy looking good).
Testing is now a dream compared to before, mainly because the aggregates are great units to test, and because business provide calculations as spreadsheets, which then sub-sequently are used as tests.
(We are deploying our private cloud, and the production-stack will be different)  

The experience
We teamed up in late March 2013 with a team of 5 from They where experienced in Java, Infinispan, GUI design, and web-development. They had no experience from Tax Administration or Accounting. The business had a concept and a plan; by starting with simple cases and adding complexity demo-by-demo. And I had a rough design for the aggregates replacing the forms. Late August we finished. At that time we had covered a lot more than we anticipated and also worked out new concepts (which had been impossible to foresee without the prototype). 
  • The theory and practices of Kolb's Learning Cycle are helpful in Computer Science. 
  • Prototyping is a silver bullet in many aspects
  • Use the prototype also on all other parts of you organization
  • Our modernised business can run with many 10s of thousands of concurrent users
  • EA-perspective and Organizational Development: Business is engaged, drive change and stakeholders are behind the modernisation
  • Our business processes can be run in new ways, eg. being much more efficient or providing transparency for the public
  • A prototype will result in a mutual understanding of information model and business logic
  • Do not implement paper forms into xml schemas, but re-structure in aggregates 
  • Your legacy systems should be moved to a “cloud” platform by using Domain Driven Design, Java, and a systems design approach that I talked about at QCon London 2013
  • If you understand HTLM5/CSS3, Javascript, JSON and REST, it is not that important what framework to use on the client side
  • Java can be really verbose, you dont need a rule-engine
  • Aggregate design (of Domain Driven Design) really rock
  • PaaS really saves time and cost
This show the innovation-power of small multi-discipline teams, with the right competence and ambition.

Creative Commons License
Cloud prototyping by Tormod Varhaugvik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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