SOA and its discontents

The Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) journey may begin with grand plans and schemes but it often ends with broken vendor promises and difficulty sticking to a long-term vision.

Immature product sets along with ambitious and unrealized plans from vendors often creates mixed results for those on the SOA journey, according to chief information officers (CIOs) who spoke to Computerworld Australia this week about the challenge of taking a holistic view of the enterprise.

Ebsworth and Ebsworth Lawyers began its SOA roadmap in early 2006 and expects the bulk of its efforts to be completed by 2009. The company’s knowledge and innovation director, Lionel Bird, said IT organizations are well on the way to abandoning siloed systems but its simply impractical to replace current investments.

“This has led to a fundamental rethink of IT architectures. Coupled with the need to drive innovation through the use of technology, we are being forced to add value without ripping out legacy systems, this is where SOA comes in,” Bird said.

Its a grand vision with the promise of great results. “But anyone that has worked in IT for longer than 10 minutes learns not to believe every promise made by vendors,” he added.

“We know that it isn’t ideal and just too expensive to manage a portfolio of systems built with incompatible technologies and development paradigms executing on incompatible platforms.

“So the strategy must involve improving flexibility to respond to changing business requirements. IT must be more responsive and cost effective. “SOA offers some promise in addressing these issues through the virtualization of business functions into services,” Bird explained.

“But people, especially lawyers, do not always work in a predictable and process-oriented way. Business policy needs to be abstracted from applications and different business rules.”

Bird said business process management systems must simplify collaboration between the developers, business analysts, forms designers, system architects and administrators by creating an integrated development environment with a bi-directional flow of information between all parties. Because SOA enables rapid change, Bird said managing that change becomes a governance issue and that has to be addressed through appropriate methodologies.

Ask Shepparton Council CIO, Rod Apostol, about his SOA journey and he says it has produced “mixed results”.

One of the biggest challenges Apostol faced at the Victorian-based local government authority was selling the SOA vision to business.

“It isn’t easy selling the need for integration as its not a sexy topic; the truth is it is a hidden infrastructure cost,” he said.

“It was our job to demonstrate to business how costly it is to maintain siloed systems; but the upfront costs of integration is also costly.” Another challenge is vendor management.

“Vendors still don’t have open systems although many will claim that they do and this only adds to the SOA challenge,” Apostol said.

“But we are far enough down the track now to be enjoying many of the benefits of SOA such as reusing code and have introduced services.”

To date, Apostol has integrated eight of the organization’s 10 core applications and says he is “almost there”.

The biggest benefit to the council has been the change in processes, especially when it comes to the way staff work.

Apostol said SOA can take three or four steps out of a process but the SOA vision still makes users nervous.

“Users are often resistant to changing the way they work and will take a very cautious approach,” he said.

Vendor support is also critical, according to Apostol.

“We change one application and another breaks which is why vendor support is so critical,” he said.

While IT is quick to see the splendor of an SOA vision, end users and the business will need convincing so Apostol also recommends patience.

“Make sure there is plenty of consultation with end-users and the providers,” he said.

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