Service-oriented architecture (SOA) has barely gained a toehold in small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) because it is perceived as too expensive, too complicated, or unnecessary. While that is certainly the case at most small companies, which rarely have wide-ranging integration issues to tackle, midsized companies could benefit from SOA, because they have similar business and technology challenges as their larger counterparts.
SOA is well-established in the large enterprises for good reasons. When an SOA project is properly conceived and implemented, it delivers affordable, consistent integration of heterogeneous applications using open source, Web-based technology. Often, this integration is global in scope. Of course, large enterprise companies have one big advantage over SMBs when it comes to SOA projects: they can spend millions of dollars on it.
Just about every midsized company has hundreds or even thousands of desktops, various networks, a vast catalog of internal hardware and software, most likely a Web site and external IT efforts that consume time and money. In addition, many midsized companies struggle to figure out how to integrate their dated legacy systems into the 21st-century world of Web-centric technology.
Why consider SOA?
The key issues for midsized companies considering SOA are similar to those of their larger counterparts:
- Understand what SOA involves from both a technology and a business perspective. The bottom-line consideration must be to assess the benefits of SOA through the lens of business criteria.
- Have a governance plan. Before embarking on an SOA project, companies need to have a plan that addresses decision-making, measurements and controls, and achievements from SOA.
- Set a budget based on one clear goal: to improve business operations by using better technology.
- Determine a way to measure return on investment (ROI) within a deadline. A good approach is to look at how SOA will achieve better, faster production and processes, while reducing inefficiencies.
Key benefits of SOA
- Better interoperability between networks and applications.
- Core system upgrades will be less risky and more manageable, effective and secure.
- Reduced cost of developing new software thanks to SOA's reliance on mostly free open source technology.
- Improved business processes.
- Potentially happier customers.
Easiest SOA projects to justify and track
- Projects that deliver new customer services. Companies can easily monitor customers' adoption of and satisfaction with new services by examining customer retention rates.
- Projects that consolidate IT infrastructure. These enable companies to cut costs and free IT personnel to do more creative things than routine maintenance.
- Projects that automate tasks or services. These cut costs and improve efficiencies.
Of course, not all SOA projects yield clear ROI benefits. One of the hardest to justify is a project that involves upgrading from a proprietary version of mission-critical software to an open source version of it. New software usually doesn't add much functionality. The benefit of moving to open source is a long-term one that unshackles the company from licensing fees and costly upgrades.
Once SMBs do their due diligence on SOA, many find that despite the commoditization of some of the technology, the skills needed to implement and maintain the SOA infrastructure usually cost more than the technology itself. This leads some companies to dump the whole SOA idea, and others to embrace a hosted solution.
With a hosted solution, there are basically two ways to go:
- Implement the SOA infrastructure in-house, and outsource the business services to best-of-breed providers.
- Do the reverse.
In most cases, an SMB is probably best positioned to outsource the business services, because it already has an infrastructure and applications that meet its IT and business needs. A common pain point, however, is the IT department's lack of experience with software development and system integration.
Herman Mehling is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, Calif. Contact him at email@example.com.