The five missing pieces of SOA

Maturing Web services standards make an SOA seem practical. But should you start now or wait until they fill in the gaps?

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No technology or software product can truly solve the semantic problem. Business and IT managers must ultimately shoulder the hard, painful work of defining and implementing functions and data models for industry- and function-specific processes. Nonetheless, prebuilt components and battle-tested consulting expertise can simplify many of the challenges.

EAI vendors see their greater experience building integration solutions as a hedge against the commodification that Web services standards portend. Tibco’s Kazi puts it bluntly: Software integration “is a party we went to many, many years ago -- we almost started this party.” A cursory look at his company’s Web site reveals specific solutions for industries ranging from telecommunications to health care to transportation.

As they move to support SOA, packaged application vendors are also touting their experience with specific industries and business processes as an asset. In particular, SAP emphasizes its xApps initiative, which represents a Web services-based implementation of business processes that cross the traditional “silos” of vertical and functional systems.

Increasingly, companies are recognizing the value of XML-based standards for their own industries. For example, the financial services industry has developed FIXML (Financial Information Exchange Markup Language), an interchange protocol for bank transactions; and the accounting industry has proposed XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) for describing and auditing general ledger-style records. High-tech manufacturers continue to use the granddaddy of XML vocabularies, RosettaNet, to exchange product and component information in their supply chains.

In fact, many observers say that the dynamics of a company’s industry may be one of the most important drivers as to when and how a move toward SOA will happen. Bob Sutor, director of WebSphere infrastructure at IBM, notes that industries such as financial services are particularly active adopters of SOA. In addition to technology catalysts such as vertical industry standards, he points to a high number of mergers and acquisitions as a major contributor to this trend. Rather than slowly sorting out and replicating information from one company’s systems to another, he says smart adopters should use SOA-style efforts to “actually integrate business units onto the network” quickly and with less disruption than they would otherwise.

In spite of these challenges, most IT managers agree that adopting a service-oriented integration infrastructure is more a question of “when,” not “if.”

Even so, the old adage, “measure twice, cut once,” applies in spades. Without clear business analysis and principles guiding the development, “you wind up recreating interfaces, which is a real nightmare,” Wall Street Access’ Underwood says.

David Sprott, CEO and principal analyst of research company CBDi, agrees but cautions that the transition to a service-oriented strategy shouldn’t be technology-driven. “Using services thinking [helps] to get business and IT on an equal footing. In other words, don’t just do services because it’s cool. Drive activity on the business requirement and ROI criteria,” he says.

Thomson Prometric’s Crowhurst echoes that learning how to represent essential business processes as services is critical. “It takes a cultural shift to change how development happens,” he says. “Compared to that, the technical challenges are just an intellectual exercise.”

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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