Ontario plans service-oriented architecture project

TORONTO – The Ontario government is about to begin a province-wide project to transform its aging legacy systems into a service-oriented architecture, promoting greater flexibility and reuse of existing software.

The project has the direct sponsorship of Ontario Deputy Minister of Government Services Michelle DiEmanuele, according to the ministry’s chief technology officer, Ron Huxter. A framework for the proposed service-oriented architecture (SoA) was officially endorsed by the province’s Information Technology Executive Leadership Council (ITELC) on Dec. 11. It will see the creation of a Common Components and Applications Services (CCAS) Group that will identify and develop finance, HR, document management and other applications that can be used across Ontario’s more than 200 line of business units. An architectural review board, which Huxter is leading, will assure the SoA complies with the regulations and requirements of those business units.

“No longer will applications be looked at as discrete builds,” said Huxter, who discussed the province’s plan at an SoA event hosted by IBM Canada Ltd. The architectural review board will also make sure another ministry or provincial government doesn’t already have a valuable software component, he added. “We’ll beg, borrow or steal . . . there’s no loss of pride in getting things from other folks.”

The term SoA is used to describe a movement within IT departments to break down monolithic systems into repeatable business tasks (the “services”) which are linked across an enterprise. Most major vendors, including IBM, Oracle and SAP, have released middleware designed to help integrate the various parts of an SoA.

Huxter said Ontario’s goal is to move from a set of more than 20 ministries that act as independent corporations to something more horizontal. The SoA project is in some respects a retrenching for the province after an unsuccessful attempt to create what was called a “common components” enterprise architecture in the late 1990s, he added. That project failed because it focused too much on IT and not enough on the business needs of the government, said Huxter.

“You had technologists trying to build applications based on cajoling or manhandling business people,” he said.  “Application developers are highly motivated by time and money pressures, (but) they ignore anything that is not a virtual requirement. You gotta love ’em and you gotta hate ’em.”

Richard McDonald, an IBM distinguished engineer, said organizations like the Ontario government are attracted to SoA projects because industry standards around Web services have created well-defined interfaces that promote better interoperability between platforms. At the same time, SoA teams are seeing greater organizational commitment. McDonald said 63 per cent of all SoA projects are being led by line of business managers.

“These application developers in Ontario are thinking more about the kind of services they need to provide,” he said. “It’s a different way of thinking, a different way of funding, a different way of governing.”

Traditionally, Ontario ministries would make the business case for an application or system and become the program manager of that application once it was built, Huxter said. The challenge in a shared SoA environment – which the province still hasn’t worked out – is how to manage things like privacy impact assessments and threat risk assessments. Service level agreements will be another thorny issue, he added.

“We have to figure out how, in a plug-and-play world, to attribute liability across this pantheon of providers,” he said. “That’s going to be interesting.” 

Huxter emphasized that Ontario, at Deputy Minister DiEmanuele’s urging, wants to act more like a corporate enterprise. The SoA project follows the release last year of an I&IT Task Force report Ontario commissioned that recommended the province treat technology initiatives as business transformation projects.

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