Making SOA Happen

Faced with increasing demands for agility and integration, many CIOs are now thinking in terms of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), as SOA becomes a key option for an implementation framework. But there is hesitation in the rollout of an idea that some would say is widely accepted and seems sound, even obvious. Will SOA ever really fulfill its promise?



The Benefits of SOA

The need for an integrated information infrastructure to deliver Boundaryless Information Flow™ in the modern enterprise has been recognized for some time. Consensus is now emerging on how to meet it. The answer, according to some industry gurus and analysts, is SOA.

The concept of SOA arose in Web services, which are a way to deliver IT functionality to users within the enterprise, as well as outside it. Loose coupling and discoverability give the robustness and agility that are needed on the World-Wide Web where the services are provided by different organizations, and customer choice forces continual improvement and evolution. These qualities are needed within the enterprise too, as its internal and external boundaries become permeable, and it becomes more dynamic and flexible in order to cope with the pressures of today’s business environment.

The Yankee Group reports that 75% of enterprise buyers plan on investing in SOA technology and staffing within the next year, and Gartner and Forrester make similar predictions. So it does look as though SOA will be a strong contender. What is not clear, though, is exactly how it will be implemented within the enterprise.

SOA and the Enterprise

The Web is a relatively recent phenomenon, freshly-programmed with new code, shining and squeaky-clean. But the IT infrastructure of the typical enterprise is a patchwork of new and old systems, with information silos and legacy applications. These contain most of the business value, which the CIO wants to deliver through the new approach of SOA. The question is, how to do it?

Not a problem, according to SOA product vendors. Buy my messaging middleware or Enterprise Services Bus (ESB) or whathaveyou to turn your information silos into services and plug them in. Buy my registry! I will show you how to make your legacy applications discoverable. Hey presto, you will have integrated access to integrated information.

Unfortunately, there is a catch. This is the primrose path of the proprietary solution. Yes, web services are based on open standards. But the application of those standards to legacy systems can vary, or in some cases not be possible. Enterprise registry products may allow or even require alternatives to the web services standards. And many vendors do not even try to claim that their products are standards-based, let alone demonstrate conformance.

This forces some unpleasant choices. Should the CIO mandate a proprietary solution for a key part of the infrastructure, on which the whole operation of the enterprise will come to depend? This may be the only way to deliver what is needed. But the vendor of that solution had better be big enough to survive long-term, and not so greedy as to take advantage when the customer has become dependent. Hobson’s choice. On the other hand, allowing different SOA registry and middleware products within the enterprise means that the supposed universal integration solutions will have to be integrated with each other, which doesn’t make much sense.

Faced with this dilemma, the experienced CIO hesitates. And that hesitation is beginning to show. Industry analysts are saying that, while many organizations are “planning SOA”, only a few are implementing it. Jason Bloomberg, SOA expert and senior analyst at ZapThink, observes that most organizations have SOA as part of their road maps, and some have pilots under way or have rolled out departmental SOAs, but full-blown enterprise SOAs are still a way away. Jan Popkin, chief strategist at Telelogic, complains that IT executives are pushing the virtue of SOA for the future, as are vendors, but there is a lack of funded projects.

The Great Debate

This is a situation that often occurs as new technologies emerge. A general idea becomes established, there is a period of hesitation and debate, and then the industry fixes on a specific standard. Sometimes, the standard is a proprietary one, as in the case of the personal computing platform. More frequently, and increasingly so, it is open, as with the Internet. In either case it sets a clear direction. At that point, a herd instinct takes over, there is a stampede, and anyone going the other way gets trampled.

Enterprise SOA has reached the inflection point. Over the next months, perhaps longer, we will see heated discussions involving customers, vendors, and standards bodies. Which are the key customer requirements? Who are the leading vendors? What are the essential features provided by products? Where are the emerging standards? How do I implement in accordance with best practice? Gradually, the answers will become clear, and the direction will be set. Vendors will implement the chosen standard, or go bust. Customers will buy conformant products, or be left with dead-end solutions that are poorly supported, hard to integrate, and expensive.

At least, that is the positive scenario. But sometimes the consensus fails to emerge, and the idea dies. Transaction processing never found a real standard that all vendors could agree on. It became a kind of optional feature of relational databases, which had SQL. SOA is a good idea that fills an important need and deserves to succeed. But if its period of hesitation and debate goes on too long, it will be overtaken by other, newer concepts, and languish.

Realizing the Promise

Will SOA fulfil its promise? The debate is just starting, and we cannot yet tell. Good signs will be vendors and customers participating in a healthy discussion, customers being open about their requirements and mandating standards conformance in their plans; vendors being flexible and willing to compromise when it comes to agreeing on standards. Bad signs will be entrenched vendor positions, hype about the value of SOA that is not based on customer need, and no real meeting of minds.

SOA has the ability to deliver integration and agility that modern enterprises need. It has everyone’s attention, and there is a desire for it to succeed. This can happen, but only provided that customers and vendors agree on standards and best practices for its deployment within the enterprise. The debate to establish these is under way. Let us all join that debate, and make it fruitful!

For more information, please contact Dr. Chris Harding at c.harding@opengroup.org

About the Author

Dr. Chris Harding leads the SOA Working Group at The Open Group - an open forum of customers and suppliers of IT products and services. In addition, he is a Director of UDEF Forum, and manages The Open Groups work on semantic interoperability. He has been with The Open Group for over ten years.

Dr Harding began his career in communications software research and development. He then spent nine years as a consultant, specializing in voice and data communications, before moving to his current role.

Recognizing the importance of giving enterprises quality information at the point of use, Dr. Harding sees information interoperability as the next major challenge, and frequently speaks or writes on this topic. He is a regular contributor to ebizQ.

Dr Harding has a PhD in mathematical logic, and is a member of the British Computer Society (BCS) and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

More by Dr. Chris Harding

About Open Group

The Open Group is a vendor-neutral and technology-neutral consortium, whose vision of Boundaryless Information Flow will enable access to integrated information within and between enterprises based on open standards and global interoperability. The Open Group works with customers, suppliers, consortia and other standard bodies. Its role is to capture, understand and address current and emerging requirements, establish policies and share best practices; to facilitate interoperability, develop consensus, and evolve and integrate specifications and open source technologies; to offer a comprehensive set of services to enhance the operational efficiency of consortia; and to operate the industry’s premier certification service. Further information on The Open Group can be found at http://www.opengroup.org.