Good IT science where you least expect it

Practical IT science tends to evolve most rapidly from projects that have business objectives in mind rather than scientific ones.

When I talk about letting out your inner mad scientist or inventor, I'm not talking about strapping jet engines to your Volkswagen or programming in Lisp.

The litmus test for good IT science is simple: It's good if the results of what you create are simpler than those produced by existing solutions.

I'll set the stage with an example. I remember being blown away by SonicXQ, the Web services orchestration architecture that became Sonic Software ESB (enterprise service bus). I saw the surface of it -- an engine that pushes smart objects around a choo-choo track using Web services -- but I had no idea how beautifully easy it was, easier than using Web services without an ESB. It would take me longer to diagram how Sonic did it than to build you a sample solution that uses it. Good science.

More recently, I came across Savvysoft Inc., one of those under-the-radar software companies producing products that play vital roles in their niches -- in this case, finance -- but are invisible elsewhere. As with Sonic ESB, it's harder to explain what Savvysoft does than it is to use it.

Savvysoft turns an Excel spreadsheet into C and compiles it. If you have a gigantic, complex spreadsheet, Savvysoft will reduce recalculation times from minutes to seconds. That's really good if you're an Excel weenie, but an Excel accelerator just doesn't grab me.

Stay with me, because yawn is about to turn to yippee. You drag-select a block of cells to tell Savvysoft what to pump out as C. You don't have to dumb down the cells' content to compensate for what you think C can't do. Those cells can contain formulas of limitless complexity, and they can include any of Excel's built-in functions, of which there are an obscene number. When you click Savvysoft's Excel toolbar button, what really pops out is a DLL. You can take that DLL and use it as you please in any Windows application. It is, in effect, Excel's computational guts -- functions and all -- made portable. And it turns Excel into a software development tool.

For those who don't like C, Savvysoft is one step ahead of you. You never see the C. The nice thing about Windows DLLs is that you don't have to care how they were made, and you can call them from anywhere. After that magical Savvysoft click, you can use the DLL as a fast function that dumps data into cells or as one that delivers data to programs written in Visual Basic, .Net languages, Perl, or whatever. Wire it into a Web service or a Web site if you want.

Savvysoft takes care of all the icky stuff, such as marshaling data types and exposing Excel functions for use elsewhere.

I recall having an animated discussion with fellow InfoWorld columnist Jon Udell after my review of Sonic ESB, talking about all of the things I imagined doing with it.

My briefing with Savvysoft went about the same way, and just before we ended the call, I told them, "Good science."

There's a bunch of it out there, and it's energizing stuff. Like other pleasant surprises in life, you can find interesting science in the least interesting places.

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