The potential and future of SOA

By : |June 17, 2008 0

BANGALORE, INDIA: Utilizing technology more effectively makes it possible for businesses to address many of the challenges they face everyday to improve commercial performance, increase business up-time, raise output per employee, improve customer service and satisfaction, reduce business and security risks, cut operational costs, comply with multiple regulations and keep employees happy and motivated.

One of the keys to ensure that business needs are met by IT is a well-aligned service-oriented architecture (SOA). In simple terms SOA is an architectural style for building software applications that use services available in a network such as the Web. SOA also defines and provisions the IT infrastructure to allow different applications to exchange data and participate in business processes. These functions are loosely coupled with the operating systems and programming languages underlying the applications.

Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) are radically transforming the way business works. More and more companies are considering an SOA approach to their software infrastructures so much so that Gartner reports that "SOA" is the most widely used search term on their website.

On Google, a search for "SOA" turns up 24,600,000 matches. For enterprises everywhere SOA is a critical initiative — with tremendous potential to help companies address today’s greatest business challenges. Organisations embracing SOA will find themselves far ahead in the ability to compete and succeed.

And SOA is becoming a much discussed boardroom topic across the world. In India, SOA is emerging as an effective services-based approach bridging the gap between businesses and IT. SOA has become the architecture for thinking about and building the blueprint for next-generation dynamic IT.

The industry is seeing a lot of traction for SOA across all verticals including telecom, BFSI and government.

 

Implementing SOA

The first step in the evolution of enterprise software is SOA implementation. It enables an organization to re-architect its software landscape to support changing strategies and thereby increases productivity. SOA’ s potential for business transformation is tremendous and the approach should be in a way that it does not demand huge investment of time and resources from the organization.

It’s not about replacing the organization’s existing software infrastructure; it’s about leveraging it.

SOA is also one of the four elements in the evolution towards software commoditization, which also encompasses open source technologies, offshoring, and software as a service, or SaaS. This commoditization trend will lead to cheaper prices and a radical change in enterprise software.

Advantages of going the SOA way

Within an SOA environment, companies can create business solutions without much delay. The architecture by definition treats technology assets as services; within an SOA, those services can be readily combined in infinite new ways to meet growing and changing customer demands.

A top-down, from-business-to-IT approach of SOA service development grants business users a greater stake in the development cycle. This therefore creates a direct channel for stakeholders because SOA service interfaces are based on each user’s needs and direct input.

A well-planned SOA brings together influencers and decision makers throughout the organization to shape SOA implementation.

The result is a tight alignment of IT with business operations that listens to the needs of the people.

A key tool that SOA offers is the ability to ensure "process-oriented" development, aligning IT with the organization’s business needs and processes. Organizations can develop solutions based on interoperable, extensible, and proven architectures, giving them a strong foundation for rapid new application development and reuse. The net result is the ability to do more with less.

Organizations need to leverage a formal and reusable methodology based on SOA best practices; seeking out trusted advisors to work out through readiness assessment, repeatable process and framework development and workshops and training to achieve a strong SOA with a comfortable cultural change to support it. Also it is essential to work on the best platforms delivering record-setting performance while saving space and money.

By using an SOA approach to build composite applications, developers can create new business services without starting from scratch. They can more quickly create and deliver new products and services that support business goals.

 

Beyond business benefits

Public-sector organizations such as public utilities or transportation can use SOA to improve customer service by linking front- and back-end business processes to enable real-time online operations.

Financial services providers can use SOA to streamline processes such as loan approvals by creating a single secure view of multiple relevant information components — such as the applicant’s credit standing, the bank’s existing loan volume, and current money rates.

Hospitals and clinics can use SOA to create secure information-delivery architecture for the exchange of sensitive medical information. With an SOA, IT can integrate data and identity management features for protecting confidential data and exposing shared services only to authorized users.

SOA opens up a whole new world of possibilities for real-world success.

The next phase of SOA

We’ve come reasonably far with SOA creating requisite awareness and mind share. However our current approach to SOA needs to be more mature in various terms. For example, we need to improve the clarity and completeness of the various web services standards and, when they become available, we have to ensure that this more complete, mature, coherent set of standards is broadly adopted.

We also need to be constantly aware of the need to standardize the format and semantics of the data that we send and receive over SOA. We need to be just as clear as to the process semantics that surround and govern each of the exchanges as we are of those that make up SOA-based composite applications.

Finally, we should not overlook the challenge of connecting composite applications with all of the small and very small enterprises that don’t have the technical capability to implement web services stacks, data transformation programs, orchestration solutions, and all of the other technologies that generally go into building an enterprise-class SOA infrastructure.

How do we address issues like this? While there are approaches that are entirely valid for fixing each of these problems individually, we need a Web services intermediary of some kind to fix all four.

SOA intermediaries

One solution would be for the IT department, on its own, to develop solutions to each of these issues. A better alternative, at least for a fairly large portion of the SOA world, may well be the use of a third-party "SOA intermediary."

This idea of an independent intermediary that enables integration across organizational boundaries is not new. In the B2B world, we have had EDI Value Added Networks (VANs) for more than two decades. Despite many of the Web-based alternatives that are available these VANs are still widely used as they provide important capabilities to companies both large and small.

A VAN can act as a trusted third party to enable secure, reliable communications between business partners. This includes certifying the identity of each trading partner and logging each interaction between partners in order to provide non-repudiation for both sender and receiver. It can define and enforce a set of canonical standards for data format and semantics and process semantics. A VAN can also enable the development and certify the implementation of the interfaces built by each participant on the network. It can on-board smaller participants by allowing smaller enterprises to connect by typing data into a Web form or by e-mailing in documents and then VAN can convert this data into valid B2B messages.

All of these services that have been historically provided by VANs to enable EDI-based communications can be similarly provided by "SOA intermediaries" to enable more modern B2B connectivity.

SOA intermediaries can also provide additional value-added technical services and commercial services. For example, SOA intermediaries can:

·Convert EDI messages to Web services calls and responses. Implement version control so that each service consumer only connects to a valid version of the service provider.

·Provide commercial enablement services like letters of credit, customs clearance or bill presentment, and payment processing.

·Support reverse auctions between suppliers and manufacturers.

·Enable cost-effective service matching between suppliers and transport and logistics companies.

 

Why SOA Intermediaries?

While there are plenty of tools in the market that enable the development, deployment, management, and maintenance of SOA connectivity, these tools are not appropriate or they are not sufficient for some enterprises. First, there are many companies that are too small to effectively enable their own B2B SOA connections; i.e., either their IT departments are too small to allow them to build and maintain the necessary skills or their budgets for SOA connectivity are too small to justify the investment.

Second, there are issues related to the standards that we rely on to enable SOA connectivity, and these issues occur because of the lack of complete, stable, non-ambiguous, broadly adopted SOA enablement standards. Finally, there are capabilities that are simply best provided by third parties.

For example, in an era where data logs can easily be modified and providing the providence of such files is subject to much guesswork and insinuation, it’s critical to have a trusted third party log all transactions so as to provide non-repudiation of sender and receiver, i.e., I can prove that you received the message that I sent and you can prove that I sent the message that you received.

Given all of that, is an SOA intermediary a good idea for everyone? Not necessarily. There will always be enterprises that want to do things themselves. But, in an age when anything and everything seems to be subject to outsourcing, there is every reason to believe that there are many enterprises that would welcome the opportunity to outsource the technical and commercial issues related to using SOA capabilities to deploy composite applications that link an enterprise with its business partners.

In the present corporate world, SOA has become a critical component offering potential for lower integration costs and greater flexibility. Gartner has predicted that by 2008, SOA would be a prevailing software engineering practice, ending the 40-year domination of monolithic software architecture. It is important for more and more organisations to understand the advantages of SOA, presenting a huge opportunity for business growth and competitiveness and acknowledge it as the next wave of web services.

Ashish Banerjee, Chief Software Technologist, Sun Microsystems India

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