SOA: A Frankenstein in the Enterprise?

Sure, Service Oriented Architecture offers wonderful upsides, but have you considered the risks?


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Over the last couple years, businesses have enthusiastically embraced Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). The Aberdeen Group reports that 90% of large enterprises have adopted or will move to adopt SOA by the end of 2006.

The attraction is obvious. SOA enables a remarkable degree of flexibility, and of integration of applications. This new enterprise architecture technology – almost like magic – allows IT departments to combine the services from many disparate software.

With SOA, data stored in outdated legacy apps can be meshed with data in current-day apps. The trend toward virtualization is pushed forward. Open source apps can be integrated with proprietary software as if Bill Gates and Linus Torvald were each other’s long lost twin.

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SOA and Vendor Buzz

Is it any wonder that SOA (promoted heavily by deep-pocketed vendors and legions of pricey consulting firms) has found a place in forward-looking enterprise architectures?

But amid the hoopla, SOA presents new challenges to enterprises – challenges that some companies may be ill-equipped to handle. As a technology that allows far greater flexibility, even creativity, it requires far more governance.

SOA is the exact opposite of a “set it and leave it” technology. Like a garden that constantly grows and changes, a SOA-enabled architecture needs carefully tending to prevent it from growing into a riot of unplanned consequences.

Clearly, “The architecture allows you to do a lot of integration of disparate systems,” says Marianne Hedin, an IDC analyst who’s written voluminously about SOA, and who sees great potential in this new technology.

Yet while SOA offers wonderful advantages, she tells Datamation, the danger is that “it becomes too wonderful and you’re creating chaos instead, and then you’ll have unhappy organizations that say ‘What is this thing? You’ve destroyed our whole entire procurement process and payment process.’”

Too Easy

Using SOA on an ongoing basis can be more complicated than some companies think it will be, Hedin says. “So vendors have to be careful when they introduce this to their customers.”

“One of the big issues is, if you make it so simple to create new applications through these combinations – I call it ‘plug and play’ – eventually it’s going to be so easy that even someone like you and I can do it. You don’t need to be a software developer.”

While this ease of use might conjure images of a complex network responding to the needs of any employee, it also suggests problems, ranging from mere inconvenience to true nightmare.

First, “Software developers now have to become much more cognizant, more than ever before, of what the business needs,” Hedin says. “Because they can’t just take any application and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to change this one. And I’m going to take this component from that application, and this component from that application, and I’m going to create a new one.’”

The resulting SOA-enabled application might be quite advanced, but it might also also be unneeded. Worse, it might create problems for the business. It may reveal sensitive data or route work orders in ways that are counterproductive.

As good as this new SOA-enabled app looks on the micro level, does it fit into the enterprise’s macro plan?

“In fact, there was a case – and I’m sure there were many cases like this – where the IT department said, ‘Oh, yippee, hurray, let’s put a new application in our department, in the IT department only. And let’s free up the software developers to create all this new nifty stuff.’

“And they did that. And lo and behold, they created complete chaos in the business. Because all of a sudden there were all these applications popping up that customers were using, that became accessible to customers and partners, and oh my goodness,” Hedin says, with a laugh.

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