SOA and the Government: A Slow Process

The federal government’s adoption of Service Oriented Architecture is moving at a snail’s pace, hindered by a broad array of factors.


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Posted September 26, 2006

James Maguire

James Maguire

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The U.S. federal government lags far behind private industry in its adoption of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). Indeed, of the federal SOA projects that have been completed, most government IT staffers describe the results as “partially or not successful” – including 14% that describe their SOA project as a “fiasco.”

These conclusions come from a new study entitled “SOA What? Who and What is Driving SOA Adoption in the Federal Government?” The study surveyed 196 government IT professionals, including those employed by the Department of Defense, the State Department and other federal agencies.

Although the report was sponsored by the Merlin Federal SOA Coalition, a consortium of SOA vendors, it does not present a rosy-eyed picture of SOA adoption in the government.

For instance, fully half of the survey’s respondents said they had never heard of Service Oriented Architecture. Of the 49% who said they had, only 70% were able to identify the correct definition of the technology.

(The correct definition was “SOA is an architecture built around a collection of services on a network that communicate with each other. The services are loosely coupled, have well-defined, platform-independent interfaces, and are reusable.”)

Government adoption of SOA appears to be the mirror opposite of private industry. A recent Aberdeen Group study reported that 90% of large enterprises have adopted or will move to adopt SOA by the end of 2006. Yet the Merlin study found that only 13% of civilian governmental IT staffers have implemented SOA; in the Department of Defense this figure falls to 8%.

“It sounds like an early market to me,” says Fred Holahan, co-founder of Active Endpoints (one of the study’s sponsors), of the lagging pace of federal adoption.

As to why government’s adoption falls so far behind, Holahan tells Datamation he isn’t sure. However, “Commercial organizations have got a more hard-driving imperative to push the business forward, and the federal government is a little more laid back in that regard.”

Inflated Expectations?

However sluggish, there is movement toward SOA in the government: the study found that while only 11% of SOA projects are complete, 62% are beyond the planning stages.

But a completed federal SOA project doesn’t equal a successful project. The study asked, “If completed, how would you describe the project?” The respondents reported a decidedly mixed experience:

• “Successful,” 22%

• “Partially Successful,” 50%

• “Not Successful,” 22%

• “A Fiasco,” 14%

In other words, a third of all government SOA projects were a failure – a remarkably high failure rate, presuming that federal agencies were contracting with knowledge vendors.

But this failure, or perception of failure, may be a case of federal IT staffers having inflated expectations for the projects, Holahan says. “And that’s not uncommon in early adoption cycles of technology.”

Additionally, “In other parts of the study, the respondents were clearly saying to us that they didn’t have enough skills to properly pull these projects off.” Again, he found that reflective of an early adoption cycle.

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