SOA: not dead just resting

Service-oriented architecture - SOA - is designed to bring cost efficiencies to IT projects, but the economic downturn may have caused many SOA-led IT projects to be shelved; however, like the Monty Python parrot, SOA's not dead, it's just resting, says E&T.

Early in 2009, analyst Anne Thomas Manes of the Burton Group did the unthinkable. She wrote a column declaring the death of a technology that she had assiduously watched and commented on for a number of years.

Manes was far from alone. Many analysts promoted service-oriented architecture (SOA) as a major theme, if not the primary focus, that organisations should pursue in remodelling their IT systems. SOA systems vendors appeared, and started to attract the attention of enterprises large and small; but then came recession.

From Manes's point of view, in the battle between the economy's falling comet and 'SOAsaurus', the slow, lumbering beast was not going to fare so well: "SOA met its demise on 1 January, 2009, when it was wiped out by the catastrophic impact of the economic recession," Manes declared.

'SOA is dead'

She was widely criticised for declaring "SOA is dead"; however, Manes's main point was more subtle. She later said as part of a panel discussion on the death of SOA: "If you go before a funding board this year - if you are an IT group and you are trying to get funding for some projects - and you go forward with a proposal that says we need to do SOA, because SOA is good, then it's going to get shot down.

"You need to talk about what services you're going to provide. There's a really strong value proposition associated with creating communications services. Going forward with a request to say: 'We need to build a billing service which replaces the 27 billing capabilities that we have in each of our product applications out there'. That's a very strong, financially rich, good ROI type of proposal that's going to win."

Manes warned that saying you need an enterprise service bus (ESB) and all sorts of SOA infrastructure, just because people are telling you SOA is the thing to do, that is not going to work.

The 'SOA is dead' line was coined more in the spirit of 'Le ROI est mort, vive le ROI'. SOA as a concept has not expired, but its last incarnation as an overweight, over-hyped IT buzz-trend doesn't look too good right now.

"SOA as the basis for a project is very much on hold and whether it ever wakes from this somewhat vegetative state is a matter of opinion," says Jeremy Young, director of service management and automation solution sales at CA.

Steve Craggs, principal analyst at Lustratus, concurs: "Priorities change, and it just changes shape. There are very few people saying 'I will now invest a million in architectural changes that one day will get a return'. If you can't show a quick return you aren't going to do it."

'SOA is on hold'

Colin Rowland, senior vice president of operations at OpTier, which supplies service-management software, argues that: "SOA hasn't been victimised by the recession, all IT projects have been hard hit and are struggling to get off the ground. SOA was on the agenda for many companies and as such it has had to be reassessed, but this isn't just down to budget.

"When we're speaking with companies many are telling us that they are struggling to resource their projects from a people perspective because employees have either moved jobs or they've been made redundant.

"There is still an appetite for SOA and to get these projects back up and running it is my belief that vendors need to be empathetic towards the pressures that their customers are facing," Rowlands adds.

Matt Smith, senior enterprise architect and presales manager at Progress Software, says the technique is alive and well in tier-one companies but: "People have stopped calling it SOA. But people are still doing it."

Young adds: "It certainly is the case that many projects demonstrate SOA principles. However, this is mostly as a result of an organisation having sufficient legacy strategies in place to make this possible and is not as a result of organisations instigating SOA-based projects."

SOA adopters

The favoured phrase, it seems, is enterprise architecture, with a strong emphasis on business aspects. "SOA doesn't sound business-aligned," says Progress Software's Smith, who adds "business transformation programme" is another term that now crops up. But any hint of an IT project being used simply to introduce a new technology is quickly stomped on, according to him.

The sectors where SOA activity is most intense among large users, claims Smith, are transport and finance. "They are doing it in spades," he says. "They are all under such tremendous commercial pressure that they have to do something. They can't just sit and wait. We have seen organisations who have danced around their handbags for a long time who are really doing something now. The recession has forced them to make a decision.

"Most organisations are project funded. There usually isn't a budget for infrastructure. Now, all of a sudden, there is a budget for infrastructure," says Smith. "People have these core systems and it has been working like this for the past 30 or 40 years. All the innovation has been done around the edges. With the customers that I am working with, and they are all big, they are changing that core now. They have realised that they need to be more agile now."

Compliance systems

Outside of organisations aiming to refresh their core systems, Lustratus's Craggs says there are areas of development that are helping SOA along, if in a disguised form. One is compliance in the finance sector, where executives concerned about future liability for problems are demanding that systems be upgraded.

Compliance is a good target for BPM, says Craggs, because the processes are already well documented - that, after all, is the point of compliance processes. "You don't need lots of analysis. If the processes are tightly regulated you know what they are supposed to look like. Also, tightly regulated processes described in picture makes executives warm and happy because they can say 'I can prove to you, Mister FSA, that this is right'."

Smith does not see a rush to implement compliance systems, however: "A lot of people talked about it but they either changed their business processes so they didn't have to do it or they implemented compliance on top of existing systems."

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