Sold on SOA: One tool, two diverse strategies

The IT industry is one that is known for its buzz words. As new technologies come on the scene, they are heard on everyone’s lips and looked to as panaceas for everything that troubles organizations. The latest word to capture the tech community’s imagination is service oriented architecture. “SOA redefines the way internal systems are built, and how internal and external systems interact,” says Michael Kuhbock, co-chairman and founder of the Integration Consortium.
But not everyone is looking to SOA to transform the way they approach their IT systems. Farm Credit Canada (FCC), for example, is taking a piecemeal approach to SOA and adopting it only where it makes sense for the Regina-based organization.
“We approach it on an as-need-be basis,” says FCC’s principal application architect Greg Hutchinson.
The federal Crown corporation has long taken an object-oriented approach to development. It is a solution that has worked, says Hutchinson, so he sees no reason to abandon the approach.
“We start with an object-oriented point of view, but when we need it to communicate with others, then we put SOA on top of that. If we don’t have a need for the service yet, then we don’t publish it.”
One of the main benefits of service oriented architecture, says Hutchinson, is that it is language- agnostic.
The FCC is not ready to switch over from a design approach that has worked well for it in the past, he says.
Object-oriented (OO) design has many benefits, he says. It’s possible to make changes to one component without changing everything else, and it’s easy to find a piece of functionality and reuse it, he says.
“Where some of that breaks down is where you have inter-language communications.”
That’s when the FCC turns to SOA. It can gain the best of both worlds by putting a SOA layer on top of the OO layer, he says.
“There’s some good stuff to (SOA). But it’s not the end-all and be-all of everything yet,” he says. “My personal feeling is that it’s a bit over-sold.” Each generation has a technology that purports to be a cure-all, he says.
“But they don’t displace good programming practices.”
Reuse, recycle While language interoperability is the main draw to SOA for some companies, for others, its the promise of software reusability. This is exactly what one sports retailer was after when it deployed its product equipment information system using Web services.
The specs for the sports equipment sold by Broli La Source du Sport (Brolisport), a St-Hyacinthe, Que.-based sports equipment seller are very complex, says owner Andre Brochu. Employees need to know a lot of technical information about the items, which includes equipment such as skis, snowboards and bicycles.
Rather than build a one-off product for its point-of-sale devices, Brolisport worked with Montréal-based Dakis Decision Systems Inc. to build a multi-tiered system using Microsoft’s .Net platform.
The first tier, says Philippe Hugron, Dakis’ president, is the client tier. The second tier is the server application, which is the software running the decision system. It gives back the product and decision information to the client. The third tier is the database tier, a SQL database on which all of the information is stored about Brolisport equipment.
Microsoft’s .Net sits between the three tiers.
This approach makes it easier for other devices to access the second and third tiers.
Brolisport recently rolled out the service to Pocket PCs so that sales reps could get easy access to product information.
“The goal is to get the information on the Pocket PC, and better than that, to get inventory information — whether it’s on the floor, whether we have the right size for the customer, and all the technical information,” Brochu says. “The same thing we have on the screen, we have on the Pocket PC.”
The next step, says Brochu, is to create an e-catalog. Much of the code needed to create it — access to inventory and product information — will already be created, thanks to the ability to reuse existing software services. But the online sales capabilities will have to be added, Brochu says.

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