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SOA: Hype vs. Reality

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If you listen to the SOA vendors (or the research reports funded by SOA vendors) you would think that Service Oriented Architecture has swept the enterprise.

Big companies across all sectors, we’re told, are building SOA infrastructure. Business analysts and tech departments are eagerly putting aside their historic enmity to discuss upcoming SOA projects.

After all (and this part is true), SOA offers key competitive advantages. Over the years, companies have built computing infrastructures that combine a patchwork of environments, from Java to .NET to Sun Solaris. SOA’s promise is that it can integrate these disparate worlds to create unified interfaces (called “services”) for employees and customers.

That’s a big deal. It’s reasonable to believe that companies would be rushing to implement SOA.

But no. Despite the rich harvest that SOA offers, companies have been slow to plant the seed. In the early days of 2002-03, SOA was mostly just a glimmer in the eyes of vendors. “For several years, the vendors were way ahead of the market – no question about that. IBM especially,” says Marianne Hedin, an IDC analyst who covers SOA.

To create excitement, vendors issued a profusion of press releases and held copious workshops with free donuts. In response, they got a lot of polite nods. Vendors “made a big deal out of this, but nothing much was happening out in the market at that point,” Hedin notes.

And not all that much has continued to happen. “I think in the beginning, back in 2004 and 2005, they were a little disappointed that it was slow. And in 2006, they were hoping, ‘Oh yeah, this is a big year for SOA.’ And it really didn’t pan out to be a big year.”

While she hastens to add that things are starting to progress, it’s not as if “SOA” is on the lips of every IT decision maker. Based on a 2006 survey by IDC, only 23 percent of companies have a SOA project “in production,” with another 18 percent having one “in pilot stage.” That’s a tentative embrace of SOA, given that 22 percent either “don’t know” if they’ll invest or have “no plans” to invest.

More positively, 37 percent plan on investing in the next 1-2 years. (Although as Hedin notes, “Thinking about it is different than doing it.”)

Still, the land rush is yet to happen. “I think the vendors expected a much faster growth rate in terms of adoption,” she says.

soa adoption, hype vs. reality

(Graphic by IDC, from Nov. 2006 report)

Seeing Their Neighbor Do It

Perhaps the most convincing factor prompting companies to begin dipping a toe in the SOA waters is hearing that other companies are doing so.

Now in 2007, there are a healthy handful of success stories. “As enterprises started to hear from their peers that they’re adopting SOA, and seeing demonstrated cases – with benefits – then it obviously started to become more of a compelling issue to look at,” Hedin says.

Confidence levels are starting to creep up. “The combination of vendors, showing cases, and the media, publishing cases, is started to help,” she says. Companies are starting to think, “Oh, this is actually happening, this is a real thing…Maybe we should be on board here, and at least learn about it, at least find out what the benefits are to our particular situation.”

Finally Calling Vendors

As if SOA vendors weren’t frustrated enough in their desire to sell this new technology, some of the early adopters did their SOA projects in-house. They hired no outside help. Many of the early adopters wanted to tinker and play without having third party input (and without third party expense).

These early pioneers launched modest projects. “They started very small. Very concrete, and tangible, and fairly limited types of projects,” Hedin says. “Then they moved from one small project to another project.”

But things are now changing, she says.

She’s hearing from companies that began SOA initiatives years ago, on their own, like ADP, Olsen Energy, the City of Chicago, and Amtrak. “And as they started to feel more and more comfortable, and learning the pros and cons, building their own skill set around SOA, they are now starting to bring in vendors to help them expand their initiative into other departments.”

They’re opening their pocketbooks to vendors because they’re trying to roll out SOA to a larger group of users within the enterprise. These more ambitious rollouts require, among other things, a well-articulated business case – a specialty of vendors.

“The clients have laid a foundation, but now they need additional help to roll this out and do more complex stuff.”

Okay, Then SOA is Finally Ready To Take Off, Right?

Given that SOA is starting to see some momentum in adoption, will 2007 be “The Year of SOA”?

“It is a little difficult because we keep on saying that every year,” Hedin says, laughing. “You get a little cynical about saying that. We said that in 2005, we said that in 2006, are we going to say that again in 2007?”

The problem is, there’s nothing simple about SOA.

“In its attempt to simplify things, it actually makes them more complex, it creates more complexity,” Hedin says. “It’s sort of an oxymoron in a way. As [companies] are rolling out SOA, there are so many organizational change issues that need to be addressed.”

Apart from the sheer technical complexity, full-scale deployment of SOA requires deep interdepartmental shifts. No wonder it’s slow going.

“The IT department’s relationship with the business side also has to change. The IT side has to understand the business side – finally. They need to understand what the requirements are so that the IT department can create these applications and services to really support the business.”

So How Long Is It Really Going to Take?

So, okay, SOA is just starting to gain real acceptance in the enterprise in 2007. Does that mean that by, say, 2009, it will be really taking over?

“It’s going to take longer than that,” Hedin says. “We’re talking about a very, very long journey here. There are going to be some enterprises who have SOA throughout the organization. There will only be a handful, a few of them, I think we’ll probably count them on our hands.”

“For example, I’ve been talking to Washington mutual, and there are SOA projects here and there, but you can’t say they are enterprise-wide yet. They have a little project over in that department, a little project over in that department. And they have different vendors helping them with that. But is it enterprise-wide yet? No, and it will probably take a number of years.”

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