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First SOA implementations should focus on business value

For midmarket companies, success with SOA most often means starting with application integration or business process management.

With every new software architecture, implementation horror stories seem to abound until people learn the finer points through trial and error. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is no exception -- take the case of a bank that created about 900 individual services only to find that a third of them were duplicative because no one was paying attention to who was creating what business services in each of the bank's divisions. So much for code reuse, SOA's oft-touted main benefit.

Reusability may be hyped as a big reason for turning to a SOA implementation, but as the bank found out, realizing reuse requires both architectural sophistication and working governance, which can be hard to achieve at first. Business process management (BPM) and application integration projects are where midmarket organizations gain the most value.

Lifetime Products Inc., a maker of polyurethane tables, trailers, sheds and basketball hoops with 2,200 employees and 23 offices, created a .NET Web services platform that connects disparate applications to its ERP system and its partners' systems. It not only provides application integration but also reduces business process redundancy.

Lifetime CIO John Bowden calls it a Grand Central Station that uses BizTalk Server as its hub to allow close to 60 applications to talk to each other. "Business units want their applications to talk to the company's ERP system, so we standardized on BizTalk to act as a connector and we use it as a service hub for purchase orders coming in from partners like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club," Bowden said. "It's become a vital service to talk to our outside partners."

By having a universal translator there is an incredible opportunity for cost savings in integration.

Aleks Buterman, founding partner, SenseAgility LLC

The key to a SOA implementation is allowing business processes to talk to each other. Instead of a traditional approach, such as writing multiple integration points, SOA is one way to create a universal translator.

"If you use a data standard or universal translator between business processes, it doesn't matter what [programming] language a subscriber or provider is using," said Aleks Buterman, founding partner of IT consulting company SenseAgility LLC in the Chicago metro area. "By having a universal translator there is an incredible opportunity for cost savings in integration, especially in larger environments, but even in smaller ones with 30 applications."

BPM is also an area where companies are realizing a return from using a SOA approach. When business processes can be expressed as a series of transactions that are developed in steps (as many are), then they can be easily turned into services and standardized for use in many different places, Buterman said.

Technology standardization, such as the case with Lifetime, is an end result of figuring out what business processes can be turned into shared services in the first place. But to get there, data management must be under control.

"Anyone, no matter what size, has to figure out how their data meshes together," said Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc. "Data between groups doesn't often correlate, so that's the starting point and SOA is dependent on high-quality data … without it how can you figure out what to make into a service."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Christina Torode, Senior News Writer

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