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8/7/2008
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Roger Smith
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A Simpler Approach To SOA

Web-oriented architectures are easier to implement and offer a similar flexibility to SOA.

SOA AND WEB SERVICES
Many people confuse SOA and Web services. SOA is about design; Web services are a specific technology set that supports distributed computing. Web services make it easier to create a service-based system, but only if your developers are using SOA design principles, where functions are packaged into modular, shareable, distributable services that can be used and reused by multiple consumers. If they're not, you're likely to end up with limiting, "stovepiped" nonintegrated applications, especially because Web service middleware isn't getting any less complicated.

When IBM and Microsoft introduced the first Web service middleware framework in 2000, called Web Services Framework, or WSF, it was based on a small set of specifications that included Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Web Services Description Language (WSDL), and Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI). Developers initially praised the framework for its simplicity, but over the last eight years the number of specs WSF must support has grown to more than 50, in various stages of completion and ratification.

In response to the complexity and fluidity of the WS-* standards, a small but vocal cadre of enterprise architects now espouse the back-to-basics WOA approach, using "plain old XML" over HTTP. This method is based on the architecture behind the World Wide Web, Representational State Transfer (REST), and is simpler than WS-* but not as flexible.

Where WS-* has a standard message format and defined parameters for areas like security and reliable message delivery, the WOA approach means that business functions sometimes get hard-coded into an organization's infrastructure without the clear separation of concerns that WS-* promotes. WOA supporters make up for this limitation by promoting a set of best practices based on REST principles, such as using uniform interfaces to access all application resources. The most zealous advocates of this approach go so far as to call themselves "RESTafarians," and they're vocal in their claims that REST is a silver bullet that can be used for practically everything.

The WOA versus SOA debate is unnecessarily contentious. It's obvious that both REST and WS-*-style SOA have their place, so IT groups should stay focused on architectural issues rather than implementation minutia. IBM's Cuomo offers this pragmatic assessment: By providing simple Web APIs, eBay and Google, which also support SOAP and other methods to access their systems, "have provided an on-ramp into their SOA that has opened up new business opportunities for all involved"--such as kids making money on homework assignments.

chart: Impact Assessment: Web-Oriented Architecture

(click image for larger view)

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