There’s a lot of talk about SOA, or service-oriented architecture, but adoption is still slow in Canada.

Although there’s a lot of experimentation, pilot projects and even some pioneers, there’s also a lot of confusion, and with confusion you get a stall in the marketplace, said Michael Kuhbock, founder and chairman of the Integration Consortium. “Everybody wants it, they just don’t know how to deliver it,” he said.

Right now there isn’t a universally accepted definition of SOA, he said, and several different vendor communities are trying to brand SOA based on their own product offerings. But SOA isn’t about software.

“There are SOA tools, but it’s an architecture – it’s not about components,” said Kuhbock. “People are trying to build the 25th floor of a 40-story skyscraper and they haven’t built floors one to 24.”

SOA, however, can be helpful. In most organizations, a simple step such as “get customer information” is re-engineered and customized a hundred times – and this, essentially, is what SOA will address through reusability.

“We’re in a critical time in the evolution of SOA because the culture is project-based and component-based in terms of delivering a new paradigm into an organization,” said Kuhbock. “That’s because of budget and because of business’s reluctance to fund large-scale initiatives.”

Since SOA isn’t project-based, it makes the notion of an SOA challenging, said Jeff Pendelton, executive director of the newly created SOA Alliance. How do you fund SOA, for example, if it’s not a project?

Still, a high percentage of IT organizations are in the early stages of experimentation with SOA, he said, and the alliance is trying to find a way to catalyze its adoption. SOA is often considered the fourth wave of IT, but it’s really the fourth wave of business automation. “If you think about ERP and client/server and n-tier computing, with each wave of capability what you saw was the coming together of different maturities and an understanding of what business models were possible,” he said, adding that it’s not just an IT capability, but a way to reinvigorate and redefine the business model.

But there aren’t many cases where SOA is a pan-enterprise activity. “It’s very much (in a silo) and continues to be that way,” he said, “because that’s the way IT is generally financed and chartered within most enterprises, so that’s a major issue.”

Canadian organizations are deploying Web services to connect applications and information sources together, said David Senf, manager of Canadian application development and infrastructure software with IDC Canada. But they’re not, for the most part, deploying a service-oriented architecture. That’s an important distinction, he said, because Web services are not SOA, but an approach to SOA.

And while SOA is slowly gaining traction, some Canadian organizations see it as a low priority because they’re busy putting out fires or they don’t have the IT skills in-house to deploy an SOA.

“An organization needs to understand from a business perspective what a service actually is, because a service-oriented architecture isn’t about just integrating everything in an IT environment,” he said. “SOA is considering your business from a completely different perspective.”

And organizations aren’t anywhere near that goal. “The reality of most IT environments is that there’s so many legacy applications and systems in place that it’s hard to get those to behave like services because they weren’t designed in that way,” he said. “They’re not designed like Java EE or .NET.”

While it’s a slow process moving forward, we’re going to see more activity over the coming year, he said, as SOA standards come together and applications are designed with Web interfaces, making it easier for organizations to deploy software.

By the end of 2006, just over half of all enterprises with more than 1,000 employees will be doing something with SOA, said Randy Heffner, an analyst with Forrester Research.

In a survey, Forrester found that nearly 70 per cent of respondents who have deployed or are deploying SOA said they’re going to be doing more, while only one per cent said they’re going to be doing less. “This speaks to very high satisfaction with SOA as opposed to being just a flash in the pan,” he said.

A strategic picture

A high percentage of respondents were using SOA for internal integration and nearly half of large enterprises were using it for external integration. Nearly half of large enterprises and about a quarter of SMBs said they were using SOA for strategic business transformation. “This is a major departure from previous waves, like client/server or object-oriented development or component-based development,” said Heffner. “These were never credited with that level of business impact.”

Organizations should have a strategic picture of where they’re going, he said, but they shouldn’t paint it out in great detail because there’s still a lot of churn in products, tooling, infrastructure and standards around SOA. “So even if you wanted to pursue a big picture of SOA tomorrow, you couldn’t.”

SOA isn’t just about integration, it’s about broader business issues such as agility and consistency, said Stuart Charlton, enterprise architect of BEA’s Strategic Consulting Services in Canada.

Some industries – such as telecommunications and financial services – are desperately in need of customer focus, he said.

“We have decades of history of building systems that are based around product lines or a culture like brokerage versus retail banks,” he said. “They have very different ideas of what a customer should be, but all of these are large companies that have to treat the customer consistently.” SOA can also be used to solve regulatory compliance issues or eliminate the manual work required for some back-office applications.

But don’t go out and buy an SOA from a vendor, said Charlton. Instead, talk to them about how to help you with it. “The biggest risk with SOA right now is that vendors are going to ruin it as a way of making money, (saying), ‘Buy our product and all will be well,’” he said. “All won’t be well because it’s a combination of in-house hygiene with the infrastructure products that complement that.”

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