IBM begins another wave of SOA releases

IBM unveils WebSphere Business Services Fabric to help companies in health care, insurance, banking, and telecommunications automate processes using SOA

IBM released SOA products for integrating software applications and improving business processes, and said more customers are starting to understand the SOA concept.

IBM is encouraging businesses to create discrete, "loosely coupled" processes that can be monitored individually and fine tuned for better performance. Building such an architecture can be complex and requires services from IBM, but the result should be a more nimble and competitive business, according to IBM.

The first new offering is a set of software packages to help companies in specific industries -- initially health care, insurance, banking, and telecommunications -- automate processes using an SOA, or services-oriented architecture. The term refers to a way of designing IT systems so that services, such as an insurance claim approval, can be reused or modified more easily.

The packages come with prebuilt templates for processes and standards common to each of the four industries. The health-care package, for example, ensures that SOA applications comply with the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for managing health-care data.

The offerings stem from IBM's acquisition last year of Webify Solutions, which focused on the health-care and insurance industries. IBM updated those packages and created others for the two new industries, said Manoj Saxena, a vice president with IBM Global Business Services and formerly Webify's CEO. It has also translated the products into several languages.

The packages, each known as a WebSphere Business Services Fabric, start from $300,000 for an unlimited number of processors and end users, IBM said.

The company also released an update to WebSphere Business Monitor, which tracks the performance of business processes. "For example, if I'm an insurance company I might have a goal to process claims about chipped windshields in two hours. This tool shows me how long I am taking, and I can see that the problem is originating from my processing center in Prague, or wherever."

The previous version looked primarily at people-based processes, while the update looks at content-based processes and also gives a geographic view through a connection into the Google Maps Web service. IBM's Lotus division has employed Google Maps before, but this is the first time it has been included with a WebSphere product.

Pricing for WebSphere Monitor starts at $88,500 for 100 "processor value units," an IBM pricing plan that takes processor type into account.

Explaining the benefits of SOA to a CEO can be a tough sell, although Saxena said IT people understand the idea a lot better than 18 months ago, and sales cycles are shorter. "It used to be very education-heavy," he said. Business people want to see where the value is in SOA.

"It's a bit like where we were with the Internet in 1995," he said. "People put up Web pages and pretty catalogues but business people didn't really see the value of it until you put a shopping cart around it. We're at the same stage with SOA. We're past the project-level discussion and now it's a question of how to take it to the business level."

Regulatory compliance concerns also inhibit SOA adoption. "They are quickly realizing there's this notion of rogue services, with people publishing services all over the place that people can use."

Information industries like finance and insurance are moving more quickly to SOA than physical goods industries such as manufacturing. Information industries tend to use more home-grown software and less packaged software from the likes of SAP and Oracle, Saxena said. Those packages aren't necessarily less flexible but customers tend to be tied to the vendors' release cycles, which affects the timing of new projects, he said.

Europe has caught up considerably to the U.S. in its SOA adoption, according to Saxena.

IBM also introduced services to help customers figure out where they can get the most value from integrating processes, how far along the road they are today and what tools and services they can use. IBM encourages customers to begin with small projects, and typical engagements are four to six months, Saxena said.

IBM sees five levels of SOA readiness from "ad hoc" through "aware" to "world class." He estimated that most Fortune 1000 companies are between levels one and two, although a company may be more advanced in a particular area like IT systems.

Wednesday's releases are the first of several SOA announcements IBM will make in the coming weeks, targeting companies at different stages of SOA development.

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