IBM's Right That SOA Has The Buzz--And Risks, Too

Smart companies keep the focus on business goals as they embrace service-oriented architecture.

April 10, 2006

4 Min Read
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Companies want what service-oriented architectures promise: easier integration, more productive programmers, and faster ways to change business processes. But delivering on that vision has been fairly ad hoc for many companies. Several software makers have stepped in to ride SOA's growth, none in a bigger way than IBM, which last week introduced 11 products and promised updates to 20 others over the next six months.

SOA got ADP's human resource apps moving, Bongiorno said.Photo by Sacha Lecca

IBM's pitch is to promote its middleware, such as WebSphere MQ and WebSphere Application Server, as the key tools to spur adoption of service-oriented architectures. For example, WebSphere Portal 6.0 will feature the ability to use the Ajax programming technique to add features to portals. IBM also is offering industry-specific models, including for banking and insurance. Steve Mills, IBM's top software exec, last week called this an "inflection point" where there's a consensus among IT execs that revisions of software infrastructures should be done with an SOA approach.

That wasn't the consensus at InformationWeek's Spring Conference last week, where SOA was a hot topic. As Automatic Data Processing expanded from a payroll company to a full-service human resources company, it wanted better integration and more reuse of code. For example, all of its HR services require people to enter data for new employees, so ADP wanted to use the same code in every application. By doing that, it ended up with an SOA approach, said Bob Bongiorno, ADP's senior VP and CIO for employer services, during a panel discussion at the conference. Service-oriented architecture let ADP deliver a version of a human resources product for a new market segment in about a third of the time it normally would have taken, he said.

Financial services and insurance provider The Hartford is six years into its SOA rollout. It started with an initiative to make it easier for insurance agents to use its Web-based system to get quotes, so they could enter information one time and use it for several applications. The company has taken a multivendor approach to technology. For strategy, the secret has been to keep focused on what needs to be done instead of getting distracted by different software and services purporting to help the process. "We don't try to sell SOA as some grandiose business strategy," chief security architect James McGovern said in the same panel discussion.

Auto parts seller Pep Boys is leaning on IBM's service-oriented architecture strategy to help give its point-of-sale system a tune-up, rewriting an inventory application linked to it and turning "a dead platform built on SCO Unix and Sybase into Linux servers running DB2 databases," assistant VP Bob Berckman says. SOA's ability to let companies reuse application modules appeals to the company. Once an application is reconfigured as a service, as Pep Boys' tax module was at the point of sale, it can be reused with other applications, such as customer service.Interest Among Vendors

Of course, IBM isn't the only vendor latching onto soaring SOA interest. BEA Systems has, through its AquaLogic Service Bus and AquaLogic Data Services Platform, helped the city of Chicago develop and manage software projects tied to processes such as issuing car registration stickers and performing payment processing. SAP has made its presence felt through its flavor of SOA, driven by its NetWeaver software. Specialty vendors such as Systinet and Skyway Software are pitching more vendor-agnostic platforms to build or manage SOAs.

Service-oriented architecture has its risks, as the panel highlighted. One is losing sight of business goals, so SOA becomes just another tech conversion. Another is testing, which can take longer because apps interact more. There's security, since SOA can make it easier to link outside the company. And there's reliability. ADP's Bongiorno found the company has had to increase reliability standards on applications, since one app's failure could take down many processes. Just one of the many hard-knock lessons companies will learn as they embrace SOAs.

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