Five strategies to optimize your SOA deployment

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Despite the much touted business advantages of a service oriented architecture (SOA), its adoption by corporate Canada has been disappointingly sluggish compared to the U.S., experts say.

Even organizations here that have deployed the architecture – such as several major financial and government institutions – aren’t fully realizing its benefits, according to information technology (IT) industry analysts.

“Considering SOA has been around for more than eight years, you might expect everyone would be in on it,” said David Senf, analyst and manager of Canadian application development and infrastructure software at Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd.

“In reality,” he said, “only a quarter of Canadian enterprises are involved in SOA.”

As a technology deployment model, SOA makes applications available as independent services that can be accessed regardless of the system’s underlying platform. This enables the creation of reusable software and services capable of responding to a wide range of business and user requirements, saving companies valuable financial resources and development time.

Analysts and vendors blame low adoption in Canada on a combination of two factors: inadequate knowledge about SOA, and relatively few exceptionally successful enterprise implementations. “It’s still ‘early days’ for most Canadian SOA users, and others are taking a wait and see attitude,” according to Curtis Gittens, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

Some software developers, integrators, and industry observers offer the following tips on how companies can get the most out of a SOA deployment:

Take it from the top – Companies that aren’t able to take full advantage of SOA’s benefits, Senf says, often fail to deploy it in the context of the organization’s business process needs. “Instead of using SOA to address a business need, some organizations merely use it as a tool to get a narrow category of tasks done.”

“SOA implementation needs to be a top to bottom approach,” the IDC Canada analyst said. Ideally companies must identify key processes that would benefit from SOA and start implementation using this list of processes as a “road map.”

There is not single sure fire SOA plan cautions, Ori Inbar, senior vice-president, marketing for software company SAP AG. “There are different ways to achieve SOA optimization. The challenge is to find the right one for your organization.”

Inbar advises companies to take stock of their assets and systems carefully to determine areas where composite applications are needed and where SOA can best be rolled out strategically.

“Using SOA as a mere band aid is a waste of time,” said Senf.

Revisit your plan – Once a company has devised an SOA implementation plan, a timetable for revisiting it should be put in place, according to Stuart Charlton, head of enterprise architecture in Canada for software development BEA Systems Inc.

“Revisiting your plan is essential because technology, business requirements and practices are always evolving,” said Charlton.

Charlton suggests “a sliding window of three years” would be ideal in most cases. Prepare to revisit the plan every year, he says.

Set up metrics -To keep track of an SOA plan, implementers must establish means of measuring the deployment’s actual costs and benefits against set goals, said Robert Ashall, partner at Softworx Technology Group, a Toronto based SOA consulting firm.

Create a dream team – Companies must create a global development team dedicated to roll out its SOA dream said Charlton. It’s also best to have the team report to a program director that keeps everything together and makes sure every effort is in line with company goals and the needs of its department.

Charlton, however, cautions that in putting together the team, companies are better off developing homegrown talent than scouting for imports. “The rules have changed. The old tactic of rote outsourcing and hiring for new talent is not sound for developing IT architecture.”

Have the will to re-skill – If hiring a squad of external consultants is too costly and replacing your entire IT staff is impractical, what is the alternative?

IT organizations are increasingly turning to retraining existing personnel, said BEA’s Charlton. Unlike outside help, in-house staff are already aware of existing company culture and the needs of various departments.

While outsourced talent might view process as secondary to results, Charlton said, existing personnel are more capable of delivering the laser-like focus on method and practices that SOA requires.

He said an increasing number of companies are realizing this fact. Charlton cited a recent survey of IT executives by GCR Custom Research LLC, which reveals that 31 per cent of SOA budgets are spent on re-training existing staff. Companies are spending an average of US$310,000 on SOA skills development, according to the survey.

Re-training for SOA could be a long-term strategic investment said Senf of IDC. He said at the moment there is a “skills gap” that limits the potential for SOA’s strategic potential. “SOA presents a broader architecture than what most developers are used to. They now have to learn how to build for reusable components.”

“One of the key turning points of an SOA roll out is determining who you should ask help from,” according to SAP’s Inbar. He said packaged solutions are available for do-it-yourself SOA initiatives but companies can also benefit from technical and extensive SOA experience of some vendors.

Completing re-training efforts before embarking on an SOA project is not necessary, according to Charlton. Hiring consultants can also be useful if used judiciously and if external knowledge is transferred to internal staff.

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