Service-Oriented Architecture: The Future Is Now - InformationWeek

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4/21/2004
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Service-Oriented Architecture: The Future Is Now

Service-oriented architecture is fast becoming the core paradigm for software applications and integration-and the key enabler in bringing these two traditionally separate worlds together. A practical guide explains why this time, progress could be real.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is the foundation of a new platform consisting of loosely coupled software parts. And as anyone reading the computer industry press could attest, the SOA notion is sweeping the application, process management, and integration sectors of the software industry. Major vendors, including BEA, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, and WebMethods are making SOA the new paradigm for their software and application offerings. As with past computing platform paradigms, the clear goal of SOA is to reap the benefits of software assembly and enable the construction and maintenance of better, faster, and cheaper applications. The difference is that SOA ushers in a new era of "synthesized" computing. The synthesis rests primarily on XML's role as a common denominator across virtually all aspects of computing, including messaging, storage, and the new breed of computing languages and specifications.

The common perception is that the major value of SOA lies simply in the ability to connect and integrate enterprise applications. However, this represents a narrow view. The greater value of SOA comes when you take a broader perspective on integration and grasp the potential efficiency that comes from connecting software "artifacts" encountered along the way — and thus make everything interact in a coherent manner. A typical organization has spreadsheets, email packages, instant messaging applications, calendars, ERP systems, CRM systems, and more, each of which has, at a minimum, its own software interface. SOA addresses how you can connect these software artifacts in a flexible, logical fashion to streamline daily business processes. The result of which is a newfound cohesiveness between transactional, document, and collaborative systems.

While most business processes are associated solely with specific enterprise systems, we actually use all of the software artifacts mentioned in the previous paragraph, and more, to perform daily functions as participants in our portions of business processes. The difficulty is that these enterprise- and artifact-specific processes are so disjointed that we struggle to conceive of them as parts of larger business process flows. SOA aims at enabling a more powerful software platform that ties together disparate activities and systems, increasing productivity, efficiency, and business agility. Whether sending a request for proposal (RFP), emailing a colleague about a decision on a credit-hold order, or checking a customer's daily sales, we are performing activities that contain predetermined rules and workflows that can — and should be — organized, analyzed, and monitored.

A few years ago, Web services arrived on the scene with great fanfare: but the uptake has been slow. This is because customers are looking for more comprehensive solutions than what first-generation technology offered — customers insist upon transaction, security, and reliability support on par with dedicated middleware packages. Unmet demand has put SOA on the fast track. However, SOA is an enterprise-level technology and as with all high-end offerings, embracing it, especially rapidly, requires organizations learn a new set of technologies and begin thinking of systems in terms of loosely coupled services. The learning curve is not trivial.

Throughout the history of software, it has been the case that the more you automate, the greater the additional complexity — and the greater the difficulty of changing systems in the future. A major goal of SOA is to establish a more advanced "manufacturing" process that breaks from the past by supporting incremental change. The goal is that systems will incorporate new functionality without compromising future flexibility.

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