The new building blocks

The new building blocks

Service oriented architecture promises to deliver more flexibility and responsiveness to organisations. But those moving towards this approach should prepare for the costs and integration challenges needed to pull it off.

Service oriented architecture (SOA) is an acronym gaining much traction in IS circles, even though it is not a new concept, having being around for some time. However, it was not until the advent of web services that the methodology caught up to allow businesses to realise the SOA vision. Nigel Parker, a developer evangelist for Microsoft New Zealand, says the concept behind SOA is simple.

"Instead of building one big 'black box' application, we break our applications up into smaller 'black box' services. We can then aggregate these smaller services into a larger complete solution. If our business needs change, we extend or swap out the affected services with a new one," explains Parker.

Roy Schulte, Gartner vice president, links SOA with the goals of building a more agile organisation. "Agility generally involves event-driven business practices, facilitated by service orientated architectures," he says.

"Changing a truck's direction is easier than making a train go where the tracks don't. If you want the train to move a foot, you have an immense amount of work tearing up and relaying tracks. On the other hand, all you need to do to turn the more agile truck is move the steering wheel."

Vendor BEA Systems believes such an organisational and design methodology, fuelled by standards based infrastructure, more closely aligns IT with business processes.

"SOA is implemented as a collection of services on a network that communicate with one another. These services are loosely coupled, communicate asynchronously; have a well-defined, platform-independent interfaces and are re-usable.

"SOA is a higher level of development that, by focusing on business processes and using standard interfaces, helps mask the underlying technical complexity of the IT environment. The benefits include greater re-use of IT assets, faster delivery of value to the business, and greater adaptability to support ongoing change," says BEA.

Early this year, BEA surveyed 1000 IT professionals worldwide, which revealed the importance of digital "plumbing" and service orientated architectures.

The vendor found when evaluating the benefits of SOA, business and operational advantages were as important as increased IT efficiency, flexibility and adaptability.

More than 90 per cent of participants cited business benefits like improved service to customers, partners and employees, greater operational efficiency and reduced complexity as key drivers for SOA in their organisations.

On the IT side, benefits such as lower maintenance and integration costs, more efficient application/project development, management and re-use, and more flexible/adaptable infrastructure were referenced by 88 per cent of respondents.

A new territory

But while 44 per cent of respondents in the BEA survey were familiar with SOA, it is still new territory for some. The "familiarity level" with SOA rated a total of 1.76 on a one-to-four scale where one indicates a "basic understanding" of SOA while four represents a "very advanced" understanding of SOA.

BEA Systems noted a gap between C-level executives and their IT deployment teams concerning the vision and reality of company-readiness for SOA.

It notes a new category of enterprise software - service infrastructure software - will emerge helping to bring SOA methodology into the open.

Designed for enterprise IT architects and business process, data, and security experts, service infrastructure software includes a messaging backbone, data integration, security framework, integrated configuration environment and meta-data UI framework.

Mike Lowe, SolNet Solutions national solutions manager, has worked with public and private organisations on SOA projects. He says SOA will help organisations adapt to business change, fully exploit their information assets, improve their ability to collaborate and avoid becoming too dependent on legacy technology.

SOA is similar to agile architecture as essentially it does not look to replace current technologies, but rather reuse it to changed standards. SOA is essentially a business integration challenge, not a technology challenge, he states.

"SOA is completely dependent upon the ability to integrate with existing hardware and software. Few organisations have the ability or budgets to start from scratch. Over the decades, true services orientation has stumbled on the issue of how to integrate to legacy systems without compromising the data or process integrity.

"This is still a major challenge today, one the product vendors tend to ignore. I'm not referring to the ability to integrate, it is the management and administration of integration (i.e. what happens to the data integrity if we effect a data change from an abstracted component?)."

Gartner says planning for an SOA is not a trivial effort. "Misunderstanding what is being designed or built is problematic for architects and planners," it notes.

Early adopters

In New Zealand, however, two government agencies - Wellington City Council (WCC) and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) - have already been reaping benefits from their SOA projects.

Wellington City Council is using SOA within its regulatory services department to help the council readily and accurately identify relevant properties and their associated business matters.

The Building Consents and Licensing Services Business Unit (BCLS) has five systems to carry out regulatory services and manage property information, with each system dedicated to managing key information sets.

WCC knowledge solutions manager Alma Hong says the project aimed to improve and deliver on the capture of relationships between workflow, properties, customers and documents in each system. It embedded these sets of information into the business process, which allowed these items to be viewed in one "complete picture".

The business need was to improve the accuracy of capturing the relationships between the data managed by the systems; accurately link customers and properties to workflow and documentation; upgrade the BCLS desktop management system and replace the 'end-of-life' document management system with a new SOA-complaint system.

"The architecture did not replace systems, it effectively provided an integrated layer which extracts information from existing disparate systems and deliver targeted services to customers. It linked four existing systems and introduced a new document management system," says Hong.

When planning the project, the council considered best-fit expert systems, open standards integration capability of new systems, how existing systems could be reused where possible and the creation of an 'association engine' to capture and manage the relationships between data sets.

The project was a partnership between the in-house knowledge solutions team, the vendor of the new document management system and a training provider.

Challenges included how the scope of the project varied and expanded, possible delays in time frame, difficulty in reaching agreement with the vendor and budget blowout.

The new system also meant new ways of doing things, which meant addressing "emotional sentiments" and there was a tight time frame for all these changes, says Hong.

WCC used the "rapid action development" approach, which featured a circular developmental lifecycle providing flexibility as the iterative reviews allowed for changes to the project without major impact on the original scope.

Hong says the project succeeded by meeting the business needs through improving the accuracy and availability of information to customers. The project also included the document management system upgrade.

Hong says a key element in the implementation was the participation of the other council stakeholders and regular communication with them throughout.

There was also buy-in from the project team, so the members were committed to it, even working on Waitangi Day. Users provided positive feedback during the training sessions.

"We used well researched and designed technology architecture and solutions and sound project management methodology," says Hong.

Finally, she advises organisations looking to implement SOA to identify genuine business drivers, scope the business requirements and benefits, consult and obtain buy-in especially where work habits and business processes change. There should also be sound project methodology.

"SOA solutions are complex, no 'adhoc-ness' will do," Hong concludes.

A tool for e-government

The Department of Internal Affairs is also using an SOA approach in its Identity Services Department, which covers passports, citizenship, birth, deaths, marriage and civil union registration.

MIS manager Hamish Watson says SOA was used as part of an e-government initiative, moving services online, while minimising the reworking of its existing investment.

"The project didn't replace any current technologies. It has been used to develop new services and functionality, for instance in streamlining the registration of deaths from funeral directors. This is currently being trailed in a pilot," Watson continues.

"Legacy systems have been inherited into the SOA by the use of standards-based web service interfaces. Investments in existing infrastructure have been leveraged because it is now possible to construct standards-based, composite solutions for new problems without having to necessarily rework entire software environments.

"An SOA strategy and associated technology has enabled us to develop standardised approaches to these needs by deploying functionality which is scattered across our established IT systems allowing a level of integration and combination not previously possible," he says.

The DIA used request for information and tendering processes, using Intergen as systems integrator and software based on Microsoft products and .Net development by Microsoft partners.

"SOA projects are going to have most of the challenges any other projects are going to have. Additionally, it's worth considering that early in an enterprise's move to SOA, you will likely be adding cost by creating frameworks to manage SOA components," warns Watson.

"SOA is not a short-term fix for existing integration or developmental problems. Significant work is needed to consider and establish a framework to support the incremental implementation of an SOA. Expect a significant learning curve with both the developmental and operation of business solutions using an SOA.

"Few mature SOA methodologies are available yet. We have added significant effort in establishing guidelines and design patterns. Governance, change management and component portfolios are all still evolving in the SOA arena," he continues.

The DIA believes its emerging project has succeeded by giving it a secure, stable infrastructure, which can be relatively easily extended to deliver a range of ongoing business initiatives. Thus, it is planning to extend SOA to internal validation and issuance systems.

Implementation cracks

In conclusion, Watson advises IT bosses to articulate the SOA strategies it wishes to follow both in business and IT architecture terms. "Governance strength and placement is important to ensure all project initiatives have sign-off on SOA considerations before final design or development are committed to.

You will likely need to employ architect skills in-house or from third parties not linked to your solution vendors. Don't just leave SOA strategy interpretation and implementation to your vendor or vendors," he adds.

Furthermore, SolNet Solutions's Mike Lowe notes SOA is 10 per cent technology integration and 90 per cent business integration.

"Of the 90 per cent business integration, the most time needs to be spent modelling the business motivation (strategies, goals and objectives), educating the business on what SOA means to them (remember it is not about the technology), identifying the common service candidates, analysis and design of the abstracted service components, and building the accurate business case. Only then, should an IT executive let the team loose on the market," advises Lowe.

SolNet Solutions recommends modelling aspects of the enterprise to determine the business (and technical) state of readiness to adopt SOA.

"Upon understanding where a company is (current state), one can determine where they need to be (future state), plan for how to get there (transformation). Unless this is done in a way that can readily be understood by all the business stakeholders likely to be impacted by SOA - and that is pretty much all of them bar the cleaners - one should avoid the temptation to prove the technology.

Take it from us - the technology works - what you need to do with it is what's often not well understood," he continues.

Lowe further advises organisations to avoid 'proof of concepts' or 'proof of technologies' until the needs of the business are well understood, documented and ratified by the key stakeholders. They should also be wary of hype.

"There are lots of very shiny, new SOA products in the market. Our view is there is no such thing as an SOA product or technology offering. That is like saying some tools and a shed can magically turn a barren piece of land into a beautiful garden - it requires a lot of planning and hard work before you get to be a beautiful gardener. Also, most would argue the planning should happen well before you buy the tools and the shed."

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