"An SOA says lets you move from data integration to process integration," said Eric Austvold, research director at AMR Research. "If the CIO's organization is charted with helping their business counterparts create capabilities, the business counterpart can then define what the business service is they need, and they can assemble that dynamically."
So, what exactly is an SOA? Loosely, an SOA is the redesign of IT infrastructure around business processes as opposed to the business being designed around the limitations of IT. This is basically where the definition of "service" in SOA comes from -- IT as a service provider. To accomplish this, early SOA adopters are using Web services as the integration engine of choice since it allows them to bypass point-to-point or message brokering solutions.
Web services allow organizations to create a loosely coupled infrastructure that is flexible and reliable since Web services standards -- XML, WSDL, UDDi, and SOAP -- allow machine-to-machine communication on an as-needed basis over a network. So, for a simplified example, if the server (or mainframe) running your e-commerce shopping cart goes down in the middle of a Harry Potter buying spree, you can set up your Web site server to call upon another instance of the shopping cart stored somewhere else using Web services. All is automated and only the IT guys monitoring the situation will have any idea of what is going on...at least, that's the hope.
By cutting the point-to-point umbilical and designing business processes around business objects (and vice versa) that can be called upon using Web services, IT becomes more responsive to an organization's needs as opposed to the business being undercut by IT limitations, such as a dead shopping cart server.
"Once you have moved to SOA being the standard in your organization, deploying new applications is a matter of introducing the self-describing object to the system," said Nathaniel Palmer, chief analyst at the Delphi Group. "Or, it could be simply reaching out over a public network and going to a public UDDi directory and finding an application service that a partner or a commercial provider is offering."
A Business-Friendly Infrastructure
The idea is not new. In fact, in the 1980s an attempt was made to do something similar using CORBA, a business objects-based architecture, said Forrester's Uttam Narsu. But it met with little success since it lacked strong industry backing from the likes of Microsoft and today is being phased out.
Enter today's Web services standards being supported industry-wide and the business case for SOA can be an easy one to make. Not only do organizations gain a more business-friendly IT infrastructure, but the ability to more easily integrate legacy systems with new solutions means business can save on existing investments while utilizing the latest, greatest instance of a new application (or whatever part they call up using Web services). This saves time and money, and allows IT managers to be more proactive in supplying updated services in today's tight budgetary climate.
While an SOA can be deployed internally without Web services and Web services can be used outside of an SOA framework, together they form a much more powerful solution, said Narsu.
"The best bang you can get within your internal architecture is to plan for an SOA and then the primary mechanism will be to implement over Web services," Narsu explained.
Major vendors such as SAP with its Netweaver initiative and Computer Associates with its Universal Application Network are getting on board the Web services train but, as important, these programs are designed to help customers take the next step by facilitating SOAs, said Delphi's Palmer.
Larry Shoup, CA's Unicenter technology strategist, sees not only individual vendors getting on board, but the entire "On Demand" or utility computing movement as part of the vast landscape that is SOA.
"Why all this is becoming real is that for IT the fundamental problem we have now is the magic has rubbed off the technology apple...It used to be, 10 years ago, CEOs and CIOs would invest in technology, not really understanding it but assuming something good is going to come out it."
But today, when IT is more important than ever, the question becomes "How can I facilitate business?" using IT, not what IT can get to conduct business, said Shoup. "So, (SOA) really is kind of viewing the IT infrastructure in relation to the impact it's having to the business."