Education key for SOA success

Six years ago the IT industry once again latched on to the next big thing – this time, service-oriented architecture (SOA). And to date most Canadian organizations have watched with interest, but without rolling up their sleeves. Over what seems like a long stretch of time, SOA hype has ebbed and flowed and is now picking up again with renewed industry hope. Although optimism is warranted – with an unprecedented number of Canadian organizations exploring SOA potential – some fundamentals aren’t in place yet to support lasting confidence.

Confusion around what SOA actually is and does for IT and for business is still rampant. SOA 101 education is worthwhile for both IT and business management, but IT vendors, IT industry analysts and standards bodies are the crucibles of SOA misunderstanding. Marketing engines involved in a giant industry-wide game of tug-of-war pulled and stretched the meaning of SOA to best reflect their own products and services. In fairness, XML Web services standards – the stuff that makes SOA work – are broadly applicable to everything from workflow management to security to system management. But had the IT vendors been able to establish combined and not competing messaging sooner, adoption might be further along than it is today.

Eleven per cent of Canadian organizations are planning on deploying SOA within the next twelve months, according to research from IDC Canada. SOA adoption is at a critical inflection point in our market. But how fast organizations move on deploying SOA and how far it reaches across organizations depends heavily on addressing large SOA skills and understanding gaps that persist.

A top reason that organizations in this country aren’t deploying SOA or are limiting that deployment, according to IDC Canada, is that they don’t have adequate IT skills in-house. Services players are eager to help shore up this problem. But for SOA to flourish, and have the profound business impact that it can, companies have to invest in training – especially for developers and architects. Skills development should run the gamut from writing WSDL contracts to architecting for service (software code) reuse within business processes.

SOA-related IT skills are limited in our market, but so too are business skills. Thinking in an SOA frame of mind is not easy. Simply considering IT as a service – both as a platform for and partner to business – requires a new mindset (and often optimism). But this is what organizations need to do in order to take advantage of capital and operations investments in SOA. The challenge is to consider the processes that make up your organization as services. You buy, make, sell and/or provide a service, while balancing a myriad of demands from customers, shareholders, employees and partners. Try not to consider how IT delivers on these processes in terms of applications but in terms of services instead. A service, in the case of a manufacturer looking to provide patio furniture customized during an order process spans customer need all the way to arranging supply for metal, cloth, plastic and glass. The service is not a CRM application. It’s the end-to-end process – with many small services in an SOA combining to make it work.

But transforming a business into a collection of services via an SOA is no small feat. Many legacy systems still populate Canadian organizations – and these aren’t as willing to play in an SOA as services as Java EE (formerly J2EE) or .Net deployments are. Additionally, tools for building, implementing and adapting services in an SOA are still evolving. There is ground to cover before these tools provide transparency into services sufficiently that enables business staff to easily make changes as required. Currently, there is too much unpredictability.

But there is hope. The vendor community, IT analysts and standards bodies agree on SOA fundamentals: take it slow and incrementally, but start from the business rationale. And more software is being released with SOA support for a single set of standards, where interoperability is taken on as the vendor’s issue and less the customer’s. The industry has a vision of SOA blanketing an organization from business processes right down to infrastructure software (e.g., security, storage and system management). Canadian organizations are nibbling the bait, but their ability to get hooked depends on their willingness to go back to school.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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