SOA Adopters, at Conference, Discuss Model's Benefits and DrawbacksBy Doug Bartholomew Print
Early users say control, trust are key concerns—a peek at what Avis and Comcast are doing.
Promising faster development and reusable code, the service-oriented architecture (SOA) model is sparking interest at many Fortune 500 companies that are looking for more efficient ways of offering new services to their customers. But the companies adopting the SOA approach, while enjoying the technology's benefits, are struggling with a loss of control over the creation of new applications and trust over the use of software created by others.
"The user wants to be in control," said Paul Patrick, chief architect at BEA Systems Inc., a leading vendor of software for service-oriented architecture, one of the hottest buzz-phrases in technology circles in recent years. Patrick made his comments at the San Jose, Calif.-based company's annual customer conference in San Francisco earlier this month. "They want to be able to create their own applications and put together their view of the world."
Another goal of SOA is to enable IT to be more nimble and quicker to react to business users' requests for new systems or changes to existing ones. "We want an IT infrastructure that can easily react to business changes, rather than having IT be a constraint to the business," said Ashok Kumar, director of services architecture at Avis Budget Group Inc., who attended BEA's conference. "We want to be able to build an application once and use it many times. That's the promise of SOA."
Using BEA's Web Logic Application Server, Avis Budget Group has built a framework to share various pieces of functionality across applications. At the conference, Kumar offered as an example a business unit request for the IT group to build a system capable of transmitting an electronic receipt to a customer's Internet-enabled device immediately upon return of a vehicle.
"Now hurried travelers can drop off vehicles and walk away," Kumar said. "Without SOA it would have taken a fair bit of time and effort to create this application, which gave us a very good competitive advantage. People like being able to see the receipt coming up immediately on their Blackberry."
That ability to reduce applications to their basic components, so that parts of them can be reused or dropped by various parts of the company as needed, is attractive to both IT professionals and business managers. "Where SOA is handy is when you are trying to slice and dice the functionality into atomic pieces of business functions," said Sumitro Sarkar, vice president of technology strategy at Thomson Financial in New York.
"We have grown through acquisitions, and the main challenge when you are acquiring a company is to integrate their products with your existing products, and there is always some overlap," Sarkar said. In other words, SOA can help break down the applications supporting various products into pieces that can be saved or discarded as duplicative.
Clearly, though, there are some high hurdles SOA poses for IT groups. First, IT needs to establish a balance between letting business groups use SOA to add new functionality more quickly on their own, and losing control over the company's applications and IT processes.
"It will not be easy for IT to relinquish control, but this is something the IT organization will have to embrace," cautioned Richard J. Merlino, a business process specialist in line maintenance services at jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut. Merlino suggested that CIOs, rather than curb the use of SOA in their company, instead take a strong approach to IT governance.
The idea, he said, is to allow business users a certain level of freedom to develop or change applications, while ensuring that once such changes or applications are ready for production, they adhere to IT's standards. "Let people have the freedom in the development environment, but as they move up to production, that's where a strong framework for governance comes into play," he added.
An engineer rather than an IT professional, Merlino believes the adherence of an organization to the use of SOA-based services can only add a level of built-in control for IT management. "(SOA) services can help," he said, "because they ensure that applications will be built according to a specific IT methodology."
One company that has in place a change-control process that anyone must follow to make any modification to any architecture behind a system is Comcast. "Today if you want to make a change, modify, or reuse an existing service, that change request gets evaluated by a group of peers," said Thomas Adler, senior manager of application architecture and IT governance at Comcast, the cable giant. The company used SOA to create two applications, a Digital Voice Center that allows consumers to customize their voice service and settings, and a billing application that consolidates billing from multiple vendors the company used.
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