Are SOAs customer- or vendor-driven?

Despite the hype, service-oriented architectures are not ready for the fast lane

Technology will put the customer back in the driver’s seat, or so it was thought during the dot-com era. To believers, the trends of build-to-order, one-to-one marketing, and CRM that focused on what customers wanted — rather than what the business wanted to sell them — were all sure signs of the dawn of a new age.

But there is a seismic shift under way in how software is designed that may put the lie to this cliché. Common wisdom says that SOA (service-oriented architecture) benefits the user. But in fact, the shift to SOA is being engineered by the biggest software vendors for their own benefit. IT will have to play catch-up to keep its own boat afloat.

This realization came to me while I was noodling out ideas with Capgemini CTO John Parkinson. When we got to talking about SOA, he said something that stopped me cold.

Using SAP as a prime example of what he sees happening in the software industry, Parkinson asserts that NetWeaver “was created because SAP saw the end of their ability to directly manage their market share.”

Amit Chatterjee, director of NetWeaver product marketing, sees it differently.

“We shifted to investing in the NetWeaver platform because we saw the need for tighter integration between technology and applications, not as a result of managing our market share,” Chatterjee says.

Nevertheless, Parkinson asserts that SAP made a business decision to stop being an application vendor and instead become a platform vendor for applications, some of which SAP will provide. Parkinson believes that although SAP managed to downplay the importance of this technological shift, the next version of R3 will consist of a set of components and the schematics that show how to put them together.

Chatterjee believes Parkinson is talking about Vienna, which he says is a project “defined around our architecture, not a product but a philosophy.”

Whatever Vienna turns out to be, Chatterjee does say that SAP is essentially redefining how it thinks about developing its products.

“At this time we haven’t disclosed what our road map is, but it certainly will be more than a simple set of components and schematics,” says Chatterjee. But this is perhaps beside the point. We are talking about a general direction of the software industry rather than a particular version of the software.

If Parkinson’s instincts are correct and what SAP is doing is emblematic of an industry shift, the change is dramatic. Witness other moves to create platform-centric architectures, including Microsoft .Net, Oracle Customer Data Hub, and Siebel UAN (Universal Application Network).

Although these vendors may not sell their entire suite of applications in the future, they of course will charge for use of the platform. The question is whether what’s good for major software vendors is also good for you. Is this what you want? Are you sure you’re still in the driver’s seat?

The problem is, managing Web services using a distributed SOA is, at present, not very doable. Implementing SLAs and change management are probably two of the bigger unresolved issues, according to Raj Shah, senior manager of business consulting at Sapient.

SOA is still an emerging platform. The trick is not to let the vendors bully you into deploying it before its time.