Tom McCubbins of Summit Business Associates, a Richmond, Va., solution provider, was a service-oriented architecture (SOA) pioneer before he'd ever heard of the term.
Three years ago, Summit took on a major project to streamline the profusion of heterogeneous systems that an electric cooperative was using to run its business. Using IBM middleware, Summit built an integration architecture that allowed the client to keep its legacy applications in place and improve workflow and data exchange among them. Not long after that engagement, several of Summit's staffers attended an IBM meeting about SOA -- at the time, a nascent buzzword McCubbins hadn't previously encountered.
"One of my sales guys and I look at each other and go, 'This is what we did at the co-op!" recalled McCubbins, Summit's managing partner. "That became our message."
SOA has been a hot topic for years, but it's also a maddeningly elusive one. Every major software vendor has adopted an SOA strategy, and most throw the buzzword around with abandon. For solution providers looking to build a practice in the field, separating hype from reality is part of the challenge.
"It means a lot of different things to people, and a lot of people use it to sell whatever their agenda might be," said Tim Marshall, vice president of technology at Irvine, Calif., services firm Neudesic. "It's almost a solution in search of a problem."
At its core, SOA is an architectural philosophy focused on flexibly linked, business process-oriented software components that leverage Web standards and services. It's the latest evolution in the ever-shifting IT landscape. Major software makers, including SAP and Oracle, have made SOA design the foundation of their latest application suites. But because SOA is such an all-encompassing idea, it's prone to a broad interpretation. A recent Aberdeen Group survey found that 90 percent of respondents said they have or are adopting SOAs in their business.
Analyst Ron Schmelzer of ZapThink, a research firm that specializes in SOA topics, waves off such grandiose statistics. SOA momentum is gaining, but serious SOA projects are still at the early end of the adoption curve. Schmelzer estimated that perhaps 100 textbook SOA case-study projects were carried out last year.
"Anybody who is trying to do SOA is realizing that it's a lot more involved than they might have thought," Schmelzer said. "It's pretty easy to put a Web services interface on anything. But to actually change the way you build applications so the services can consume those applications, well, that involves changing the way people build applications."
One textbook case is the modernization project that Ultramatics, Oldsmar, Fla., took on three years ago for marine transportation services company Crowley Maritime. As it grew and made acquisitions, Crowley ended up with a hodgepodge of heavily customized, disparate systems that required resource-intensive, point-to-point adapters for integration.
Until Crowley engaged Ultramatics, it was bracing itself for a complete rip-and-replace job. Ultramatics suggested an SOA approach, using IBM WebSphere infrastructure like Message Broker and MQ to create an enterprise service bus (ESB) linking Crowley's systems. The SOA revamp, which took about a year from planning to the first deployment phases, slashed the time and cost of implementing changes and bringing new systems online.
"We helped educate them that SOA is a journey, as opposed to a product that you buy," said Saru Seshadri, Ultramatics' president and founder. "It's not a one-time deal."
The incremental approach of SOA design is an attractive selling point, solution providers say. Summit's McCubbins likes to start by zeroing in on one process. "It may not be the most critical, but it will be one where we can have a quick win," he said.
For one of its co-op clients, Summit began by modeling the workflow involved in creating an IT entry for a new customer's electrical meter. Establishing a new meter used to be a manual process that dragged on for weeks, but the system Summit designed enables it to happen almost instantaneously. That sold the customer on the benefits of investing in a broader SOA overhaul.
NEXT: What's driving SOA
Systems integrators have long wrestled with the challenges of heterogeneous IT environments, and the core ideas driving SOA -- about the value of flexible, integrated systems -- aren't new. What's changed, according to solutions providers, is that software, standards and best-practices methodologies have come of age. Companies can now rely on the infrastructure of the Internet to physically link remote data systems, while standards like XML, SOAP and WSDL are ubiquitous.
"What the Web services standards and the tools built around them have done for us is alleviate the technical roadblocks for integration, so you can spend more time on the business issues," said Paul Hernacki, CTO of Definition 6 in Atlanta.
Global solutions provider Keane now has 300 consultants trained for SOA projects, whereas four years ago it had 40. Financial services and pharmaceutical companies, which have complex businesses and strong financial incentives to optimize systems, have been among the most rapid adopters, said Alkesh Shah, Keane's director of system architecture.
Of course, a fledgling and rapidly evolving field has its share of speed bumps. Critical specifications like XML are entrenched, but vendors continue wrangling over others in jockeying for advantage. UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration), a much-hyped protocol for an online, programmatic registry of business services, essentially collapsed last year amid lackluster adoption and a decision by its backers to go in different directions with their implementations. In such a dynamic field, figuring out which horses to back is a delicate art.
Meanwhile, the market for SOA-enabling software is filled with pure-play vendors facing intense competition from giants like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, which are fleshing out their own SOA middleware. Even solution providers that sometimes recommend the independent vendors don't foresee them sticking around, since the expectation is that they will get bought or fade away. Keane's Shah remembers a client project in which he evaluated XML processing technology from IBM and DataPower, a smaller rival. Shah recommended DataPower, only to see the company swallowed up by IBM a year later.
"What would compel somebody to select one of [the pure-plays] when the big guys are adding features and acquiring companies constantly?" ZapThink's Schmelzer said. "Companies just don't like risk, so they're first and foremost going to their existing technology providers."
The SOA technology field is also strewn with open-source offerings. For example, in ESBs, companies can pick among Mule, ServiceMix, JBoss ESB and others. Open-source software can be useful for inexpensive proof-of-concepts, Shah said.
"If a client doesn't want to invest in any given way of implementing a stack, they go with open source, and it doesn't cost them a dime," he said. "Once they understand the value of that way of doing the SOA implementation, they may want to reduce risk and swap out the open-source for a more reliable vendor."
Years after the SOA buzz began, it's still building. But so are the benefits of broadening adoption.
"SOA is an architectural pattern that I think still has legs for the next five years," said Neudesic's Marshall. "Reality is setting in. SOA doesn't cure cancer; it's not going to solve world hunger. It's another tool in our toolbelt, and it's definitely one with momentum."