Therese Greble

Wednesday, 02 November 2005 05:37

Service-oriented architecture

Perhaps you’ve heard your IT staff mention service-oriented architecture.

What is it? Does it add value to your business? Do you care?

Yes, you do.

What is it?
In a nutshell, service-oriented architecture (SOA) is an old — but overlooked — way to design distributed information technology applications so they align with business needs and processes instead of technology needs.

A service is a software function (such as verifying a customer number) that is well-defined, self-contained, has stable and well-defined interfaces, and runs according to a well-defined policy, regardless of where the service resides. This self-containment is the main advantage of SOA over other types of distributed IT application design.

Why does it matter?
Self-containment matters because it provides flexibility and agility, which gives your organization many competitive advantages.

On a simplistic level, SOA and previous IT application designs are like computer printers. Many years ago, if you had a Compaq computer, you had to use a Compaq printer to print from that computer. This is much like current IT application designs.

Today, no matter what kind of personal computer you have, you can use almost any type of printer. This is like service-oriented architecture. You can use an HP printer with a Dell computer, for example, because the computer and the printer are self-contained.

What does SOA mean for me?
Incorporating SOA into IT application designs allows you to reuse business and IT functionality. Just as you can unplug that Compaq printer, connect it to another desktop computer and print, you can also copy one service (i.e., self-contained module of functional software) and plug it into another part of the system to obtain that same functionality.

In addition, SOA enables you to integrate services (again, think self-contained modules of functional software) from various sources into an IT system to meet your business needs. No longer would you have to use Oracle software for one business function just because the rest of your system uses Oracle. SOA’s independent services help you avoid vendor lock-in so one particular vendor doesn’t have a monopoly on all future purchases.

Other advantages to SOA include the ability to quickly, inexpensively and easily design and deploy new business functionality, so your firm remains nimble to changing market demands without having to rewrite the entire system or implement a new ERP solution. Your organization has the ability to align IT functionality with critical business drivers instead of arbitrary technological constraints.

And use of SOA can significantly reduce system complexity and ongoing software support costs.

What’s the catch?
As with any business decision, it’s important to understand all facets of the opportunity before jumping in. Implementing SOA does require a greater initial investment than other IT system designs, but the benefits should be realized in the short-term because of reduced maintenance costs.

SOA also requires disciplined organizational changes — business and technology professionals must work together to define services, there must be cross-organizational coordination and process re-engineering and change-management initiatives must be followed to ensure a smooth transition.

While SOA promotes reuse of services, not all services can be reused in all cases — more than half might be reused, but certainly not all. And since SOA is still in its infancy, best practices are still not widely published.

SOA redefines business agility
SOA redefines business agility and flexibility — it allows businesses to leverage and reuse existing IT assets in new ways to achieve new business goals. Another way to think about SOA is that it’s about leave-as-is-and-layer versus rip-out-and-replace.

SOA represents another evolution in the history of IT. We have evolved to Web-based processing, and IT professionals will evolve again to complement their technical skills with soft skills and a solid understanding of business strategy and process.

Companies that embrace SOA early can reallocate resources from projects that operate their business to projects that differentiate their business from competitors.

Therese Greble is senior practice manager at CIBER’s Philadelphia office. Reach her at (610) 993-8100 or at CIBER Inc. is a global IT consulting firm which builds, integrates and supports critical business applications in custom and enterprise resource planning environments.