A service-oriented architecture is worth the investment, experts say

Service-oriented architecture may cost more up-front, but the flexibility and business-process improvements are well worth the investment.

Moving to a services-oriented architecture (SOA) was a natural evolution for Covad Communications Group Inc., a San Jose, Calif., provider of broadband voice and data communications.

The company, which provides DSL, Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), Web hosting, managed security and dial-up services, was an early adopter of Enterprise Java Beans, or EJB, in 1997. That enabled Covad's software developers to churn out a series of in-house applications -- about 60 in all. These applications aided a variety of business processes, including managing inventory and customer relationships and processing customer orders.

The biggest disappointment is the lack of vendor support for SOA in commercial products.

Paul Grantham, vice president of software and information systems, Covad

An EJB architecture is designed to help enterprises control changes at the server level, rather than updating individual machines. Still, Covad's IT engineers found themselves spending an increasing amount of time managing the environment's ever-increasing complexity. That prompted Paul Grantham, Covad's vice president of software and information systems, to do some thinking about SOAs.

"The problem was that these (EJB) applications are all now spaghetti-wired together, and the environment is impossible to manage and impossible to change," Grantham said. "Getting more flexibility in making changes was a very specific driver behind why we went to services-oriented architecture."

Specifically, Covad wanted to present applications as services that individual departments could decompose and assemble into business processes. That required a distributed computing environment that allows changes made to one component to be rapidly consumed by all other machines, thus avoiding declines in network performance.

As Covad embarked on the venture, one thing became readily apparent: There were no SOA-in-a-box platform products on the market. Grantham and his IT team already were using BEA Systems' WebLogic Integration software package, which came closest to providing the functionality Covad needed.

Even so, Covad's Java engineers wound up creating a host of middleware applications as part of an enterprise service bus (ESB) on which to implement services-oriented architecture: Everything from adapters to applications that govern security fell under their domain.

"We're creating what I consider to be more middleware kinds of things, which I don't like doing because we're not in the middleware business," Grantham recalled. "But unfortunately, we couldn't buy everything we needed."

He added: "The biggest disappointment is the lack of vendor support for SOA in commercial products," although IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. have announced SOA support programs within the past year.

Oracle Corp. recently announced it would begin packaging several of its Fusion middleware products as the Oracle SOA Suite.

Service-oriented architecture worth the struggle

Despite the hardships, Grantham said he has no regrets about abandoning point-to-point connections in favor of SOA. Covad began implementing its service-oriented architecture in 2004, and since has used it to roll out a new inventory-management system, Siebel's order-management system, a customer relationship management (CRM) system using an Oracle framework and a new billing system.

"There aren't too many companies that have been able to do all that, which, quite frankly, I attribute to our SOA approach," Grantham said.

Among the earliest proponents of SOAs were companies that needed to share large volumes of continuously changing information, especially those in the financial services sector and telecommunications firms such as Covad. But service-oriented architecture is a strategy -- and the benefits are not always obvious and immediate.

"Many IT organizations are raring to go: They see two different systems doing the same thing and say, 'Let's consolidate (them) into a shared service.' The problem is IT often doesn't have a good way of articulating the business benefits of SOA to those users," said Dan Sholler, a vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc.

Sholler said SOA represents the "most significant change to building IT architecture since the invention of the client/server. On the other hand, there are a lot of things about building service-oriented architecture that we just don't know, because these systems will be many orders of magnitude greater than existing systems."

What is known are the additional expenses associated with building services-oriented architectures, said Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at ZapThink LLC in Waltham, Mass. Shared service components typically are built atop XML to take advantage of the increased interoperability of using Web services. Bloomberg said enterprises considering SOA should prepare for increased overhead, both in hardware and personnel.

"XML is verbose: It puts an extra burden on your network and requires extra hardware and software to get it to work properly. Somebody also has to manage these shared services, and that requires a new organizational infrastructure, which of course could cost extra money," Bloomberg said.

Questions of the ROI of SOA

The promise of SOA lies in its potential to help companies shave integration expenses and use shared services to get a "single view" of their best customers, Bloomberg said. Additionally, CEOs of companies that must comply with stringent regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act benefit by being able to peer into their patchwork systems and applications and gain needed visibility in auditable business processes.

"SOA is really the only approach out there for solving a lot of these IT issues. The questions really are: 'How do I do SOA? When do I do SOA?'" Bloomberg said.

During his SOA rollout at Covad, Grantham did not try to sell his top management on the bells and whistles of the infrastructure. Instead, he focused on concrete metrics: how orienting the architecture around shared services would free up stranded inventory and integrate the various functions of ordering, inventory management, CRM activities and billing.

"We sold them on the business benefits, not the architecture," Grantham said.

Until there is a critical mass of SOA deployments, discussions of ROI won't mean much, Sholler said. Even so, he said companies should focus not on how to cut costs but how SOA could help juice up sales, increase customer loyalty and enable companies to become more efficient.

"The problem SOA is attempting to solve isn't how to shave a couple points off the IT budget," he said. "It's how to build IT systems that change at a rate compatible with the rate of change in the business world."

Garry Kranz is a freelance technology writer in Richmond, Va. To comment on this story, email editor@searchcio.com.

This was first published in January 2006
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