Q&A on SOA in Today's Economy

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Sometimes, to better understand things, we question ourselves. These days, during our current economic crisis, something we might want to understand better is SOA, or more accurately, service orientation (SO). Thus, here is a dialogue with myself.

Q: Why do you connect economical downtime with SOA?

A: For the era of automation provided by IT departments of organizations, the business market experienced "downtime" several times already. Business has learned that it has to switch from "go-go" to "go-slow" mode in tough economic conditions. That is, it has to move attention and investments from the strategic initiatives onto the sustainability, which is expressed via minimization of expenses while doing the same business with less possible changes.

The most popular expense reduction mechanisms are cutting spending in cost centers such as IT, cutting investments into new business solutions (assuming that market just moves slower with no significant changes), and trying to produce the same with fewer resources. And this did work for short while but not long enough to "sit through" the slow-down.

At the same time, business orients to service naturally; this is how it makes its living. Business consumers (in contrast with technical ones) are not only those who consume at the moment but also those who have intentions or needs to consume. The OASIS SOA standard positions SO as the business-oriented, consumer-centric concept. This outlines SO from other known business and technical concepts; SO collaborates across business-technology boundaries. Thus, if business faces slowdown, i.e. reduction of service, SO is hardly affected.

Q: What are the specifics you see for current downtime and do you agree that SOA is going down as well?

A: In short, SO can go down in a crisis only if it is misused. What matters is the current downtime is different from the ones the business and technology experienced before and "go-slow" does not work anymore. SO has all the needed potentials to move a company through the crisis and win after all. Here is an illustration.

Someone runs a flower-growing business located on an ocean coast. During a calm season, the flowers ought to be covered to be protected from the nightly breeze. If the wind is stronger, the cover should be made stronger so the business can go forward. When next season comes with constant storms, a strong cover can sustain for only so long. If a crash happens, the business fails. This is what we have in our current economical crisis: it is so strong and promised to be so long that just "go-slow" bids on the business existence itself, not on its revenue. We witness how strong companies suddenly collapse every day.

The collapses happen for many different reasons, but a couple of them are quite common: by going slower and "tightening the belt," the business cuts its core -- serviceability and SO. This results in lower sustainability and higher risk of total crash even if the business freezes. Another reason could be the business continues doing the same things and in the same way but slower, in smaller volume, and with less reserves. When a business shrinks, it gradually loses ability to analyze market situation, new conditions, changed demand, and so on. That is, its low-level processes and operations get more and more out of sync with the changing external environment. This makes the organization even more fragile.

In contrast, if understood on time and properly applied to the organization, SO can guide the organizational structure that increases organization "survivalability" via flexibility. SO can provide its best results right when the market turmoil is quite high.

Q: It is an unusual approach. Well, why can SOA save business during the crisis?

A: As I mentioned, SO is about the business. That is, if we understand what can save the business, we can find how SO helps it. Let's look at the business surrounding by an enterprise's business eyes. It seems that we find an economic environment that does not slowdown, but does the opposite -- it changes faster and faster, in an almost sporadic manner. Well, for some industries that is not necessarily true yet, and may never happen. However, those who are getting into the crisis see their partners and suppliers go under, governments quickly (but not necessary on time) change policies, rules, regulations and infuse billions, and consumers demonstrate constantly changing behavior patterns and actual needs. So, the environment is very aggressive and volatile. It is much more dynamic than during a prosperous economic time. Then, why are organizations slowing down their business and becoming more paralyzed?

From the history, we know many examples where small armies won wars against much more powerful enemies. The secret was in the activity and efficiency of small armies; they did not stand still, they moved and regrouped trying to discover to the enemy's weakness. They demonstrated flexibility in reactions to the threads; they flew around to avoid collisions. Thus, business effectiveness, flexibility, dynamism and adoptability to external changes is the business strategy for surviving an economic storm.

Today, SO is the methodology that possesses all mechanisms for flexibility, dynamism and adoptability to external changes because of its core service orientation. The strength of SO is not in an integration of legacy systems somewhere inside IT, but in the ability of services to independently change its collaborating partners, resources, compositions and creating new collaborations to address new changes. SO is the methodology that can direct business toward organizational and operational efficiency under the pressure of constantly changing requirements.

Q: All right. I think we would be very interested in knowing how SOA can do it for the business and technology.

A: To survive, business has to start by helping itself. First, it has to recall that it is service-oriented from the very beginning and it has to preserve its services top-to-bottom. That is, its external services have to be nothing else than the combinations of its internal services. Second, business has to agree and understand that any process (real business process like between Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, or just operational supportive processes like a reconciliation between registered and forwarded requests) is nothing more than a realization of the business service. This is especially important because low-level operational processes are just implementation of the customized responses to the external environment. That is, if a change happens, business flexibility may require significant modifications of those low-level operational processes. Such dynamism has to overcome any potential ownership issues.

The final step is about relationship with technology. As Forrester Research pointed out, "The reality of the digital age is that your business is embodied in your technology -- you don't have a business until you have it implemented in your technology base, and your business can change only as fast as your technology can." That is, to be not only instantly reactive to the market but also proactive in it, business has to pair with technology almost all along the way, from the business idea inception to the user acceptance testing. Business needs the IT to be not only as flexible as the business units, it needs the IT to be always in sync with the business unit turns (rather than having its own technical agendas). This is the matter of the organizational processes and human interrelationships. Think how flexible the business units might be if the company's culture segregates technology from the business or if IT is outsourced to minimize the corporate spending during recent illusive "sustainability" periods.

Within IT, there is no need for new technologies to provide for SO promises. Nonetheless, requirement of flexibility affects IT delivery culture. In short, the major cultural transformations are dictated by the necessity to design and build for changes, i.e. knowing requirements for today and considering their future changes. Business and technology architects and analysts have to work not sequentially, as before, but shoulder-to-shoulder on the service-oriented solution (SOS, indeed). The SOS differs from traditional applications in that it is always designed and released end-to-end, per function; it consists of operational (manual) and technical components tied vertically, by the definitions of the business services, and horizontally by the business processes (rather than by any technology-oriented models). To be effective, SO requires strict discipline in following certain design and implementation rules, i.e. to be governed.

Crucial requirement of delivering properly working technical instruments almost instantly demands two things: close collaboration between business and technical people similar to the way demonstrated by the agile methodology, and highly professional execution of the design and development. Service mentality has to prevail in the product design and within the team and relationships to other teams. If company's IT is not at this level yet, professional contractors can bring needed expertise and still be incorporated into your business-technology culture.

Therefore, the major take-away recommendations for doing business with SO during the crisis are: 1. instead of slowing down, become proactive and dynamic; 2. watch for the business efficiency of your daily business operations, preserve their service orientation; 3. integrate, converge your business activities with your technology solutions; 4. think in services, act as services, create service-oriented culture inside and outside of the organization.

About the Author

Michael Poulin works as an enterprise-level solution architect in the financial industry in the UK. Poulin specializes in bridging between Business needs and Technology capabilities with orientation on business and technical efficiency, scalability, robustness and manageability.

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