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Over the past four years we have seen a great deal of favorable adoption of the Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) as a product category in the IT industry. The ESB has taken off and evolved in the ways it is implemented and deployed since the term was first coined in 2002. Numerous Application Platform Suite (APS) vendors such as IBM and BEA, Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) vendors such as TIBCO and webMethods and even Web Services toolkit vendors have all adopted the ESB moniker. Even British Telecom has embedded an ESB in a hardware box with their “BT Integrate” offering. We have also seen some significant changes in the way technologists in IT departments view the role of an ESB as an important part of their IT landscape. As is the case with most new technology categories, it has taken some time for the hype to subside. Now that the dust has settled, we can see the practical uses of ESBs as they get deployed in the real world.

Analyst views from firms such as Gartner and Forrester have also shifted from hailing ESB as the all-you’ll-ever-need for SOA to more of an implied part of the infrastructure in support of a SOA. Reports from these analysts and from thought-leading vendors have provided greater clarity on what makes up the definition of an ESB. The constant that remains is that an ESB is used to connect, mediate and control the interactions between a diverse set of applications that are exposed through the bus using service-level interfaces.

In my travels around the world talking with people about SOA and ESB, I have noticed a shift in people’s thinking and witnessed a trend of enlightenment over the past two years. The questions on most people’s mind has shifted from  “what is SOA?” and “What is an ESB and why would I need one?” to “I know I need a SOA, I know I need an ESB, but what is an ESB best suited for and what other technology infrastructure do I need in order to implement my SOA?”

Process-Oriented, Event Driven Architectures

Point-to-point integrations have typically been addressed with simple request-reply, synchronous style interactions. In this type of environment, a Web service intermediary acting as a proxy for data transformation and routing can work well. However, the real sweet spot where an ESB has shown its power and flexibility is in process-oriented, event driven architectures. When doing broad scale integrations across many disparate applications, the key to success is to have an architecture that allows for each application to be decoupled from the rest of the SOA by using the ESB as a form of mediation. Each application should be made to operate independently from the other by being capable of receiving individual tasks or units of work that are processed as asynchronous events. If there is another action to be taken as a result of receiving and processing the asynchronous event, then so be it. That action does not necessarily represent a response to a request that the original initiator of the action is waiting for. It’s more likely that the next action to occur is itself an asynchronous event that is placed back onto the bus to be forwarded along to the next application. The surrounding process manager that is part of the ESB, which is controlling the interactions between the individual invocations, is what is concerned with getting that event sent along to the next application.


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