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SOA, SaaS and SOAP: CIOs drowning in sea of IT acronyms

If you're a CIO who likes to have intelligent discussions across disciplines, terms such as SOA, SaaS and SOAP have you drowning in a sea of acronyms.

SOA. SaaS. DPWS. WSD. SOAP. XRBL. Who can keep up with all the IT acronyms out there? Luckily, most technical staff people don't have to. A Web services programmer probably needs to know what DPWS stands for (Devices Profile for Web Services) and what it does, but a network administrator couldn't care less.

CIOs, on the other hand, need to talk intelligently to Web programmers, and network administrators. As a result, many of them are in danger of drowning in acronym soup.

Elisabeth Horwitt
Elisabeth Horwitt
"If you're a security person, you just have to learn the acronyms in your area," says Jay Aho, CEO of Gen18, a sales and marketing consultancy that specializes in IT clients. "But if you're a CIO, you need to have intelligent discussions across domains and disciplines."

This has become increasingly critical -- and challenging -- for IT leaders, with the rise of cross-functional technologies and disciplines like business process management, or BPM; enterprise resource planning, or ERP, service-oriented architecture, or SOA; and enterprise systems management. "Nobody works just within their discipline anymore," Aho says. "Even a security practitioner has to talk about infrastructure and applications."

Of course, IT people aren't the only ones swimming in acronym soup. Pretty much every industry makes use of esoteric, specialized terms and letter combinations. "People naturally tend to gravitate toward acronyms as a way to speed communications: CRM instead of customer relationship management, or ERP instead of enterprise resource planning," says Bart Dahmer, an IT executive who has worked at a number of Fortune 500 firms. Experts in various technical areas "don't even realize they're using acronyms until they speak to someone from another technical area or a different business domain and have to stop and explain," he adds.

CIOs naturally seek to avoid appearing ignorant to their subordinates. But keeping up with IT acronyms can be challenging, even for specialists. Today's hot letter combinations can quickly become defunct or obsolete; they can even assume new meanings.

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To take one example: In 1996, the DMTF changed its name from Desktop Management Task Force to Distributed Management Task Force. The change reflected the standards organization's broader mandate of developing and promoting the Common Information Model, a set of standardized definitions for managing systems, networks, applications and services.

Independent information security consultant and blogger Kevin Beaver says what he finds particularly annoying, however, are "vendor-fluffed, marketing-focused acronyms -- or VFMF." Vendors keep trying to turn their marketing concepts or products into industry standards, thus adding more ingredients -- and confusion -- to the soup, he points out.

Guessing what the letters stand for can also be tricky. Aho points to a Cisco monitoring product, MARS, which stands for Monitoring, Analysis and Response System. But it could just as easily stand for Monitoring, Auditing and Reporting System -- or Service, he adds.

The best way to deal with IT alphabet soup is to home in on the meat of the meaning, rather than worry about what the letters stand for.
To make matters worse, an acronym can have multiple legitimate meanings. Go to Wikipedia, and you'll find more than a dozen definitions for CRM. Of course, an IT manager will assume that it stands for customer relationship management. But what if he works for an investment firm, and has to deal with end users who think CRM stands for credit risk management?

So what's a CIO to do in order to keep his or her head above water? "Read trade publications from other disciplines or areas in which you will be interacting on a regular basis, and try to learn the lingo and key terms," Dahmer advises. Google the acronym on the Web: Wikipedia is a good place to start. There are also software tools that define and explain acronyms.

Industry sources agree, however, that the best way to deal with IT alphabet soup is to home in on the meat of the meaning, rather than worry about what the letters stand for.

"Anyone can spout out techno jargon and sound smart," Beaver says. "But unless you put things in terms of the business that management can understand, no one really benefits. It's the IT pros who can clearly and succinctly outline what really matters that will stand out above the noise."

Still, miscommunication will happen. Aho recalls asking a vendor rep at a trade show whether the company's software would run on ATM. "The sales guy looked mystified," he reports. "He said, 'I'm sure it could, but why would you want to run it on an ATM machine?'"

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at

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