Stepping into the future of SOA

Missing technology pieces stand in the way of ultimate business agility, but limited SOA deployments can still deliver benefits today

Everyone has heard the clichés about “aligning business and IT,” as if technologists needed to be corralled into serving business needs. The problem, though, isn’t the will, it’s the way. SOA provides the framework necessary for a new level of IT responsiveness, even if some technology components have yet to mature.

Hooking up BPM (business process management) to large portions of SOA infrastructure will represent one big step toward the new era. Another will be wide deployment of integrated BAM (business activity monitoring) solutions, which will tap into SOA message streams to help determine that processes and composite applications are providing the best possible business value. Beyond those technologies, industry SOA boosters set their sites rather high, prophesizing a self-optimizing IT nirvana in which applications and network infrastructures monitor and reconfigure themselves based on easily adjusted business rules.

If self-optimizing SOAs ever arrive on a grand scale, it won’t be in this decade. With the most advanced of today’s enterprises barely achieving orchestration, SOA clearly needs to fill a few gaps -- in security, reliable messaging, semantics, process management, and so on -- and work its way through important governance issues.

What’s just as clear, however, is that SOA is delivering real value now. “The thing that I see most folks doing across the breadth of the industry is just getting services, of any kind, in place,” says Randy Heffner of Forrester. “Some of them are business services, but a lot of them are application-level services that aren’t really modeling the business per se but opening integration paths to applications that people couldn’t get to before.” That assessment may pale in comparison to big promises about hyperagility, but for IT on the ground, it’s a pretty big deal.

Meanwhile, those who attack the whiteboard in earnest may be doing more to prepare for an SOA future than early adopters who push orchestration to its current limits. According to Ben Moreland of The Hartford, “from an organizational perspective, the biggest issue we have is really SOA education and getting people to understand roles and responsibilities that are a little different than they were historically. There’s more of a shared responsibility. Now, you focus on your business area, leveraging services and infrastructure from other [areas] where you may not have any control.” In other words, cultural change to meet the challenge of SOA can begin any time you like.

As Bruce Richardson, chief research officer at AMR Research, says, “SOA is a journey, not a destination.” Early SOA efforts are already establishing new lines of communication between IT and business -- and in some cases, beginning to affect the organization of business itself, as people grow to understand how service orientation can eliminate duplicative effort and shorten development time. In these instances, the future is already beginning to arrive.

-- Paul Krill contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.