IBM Pushes SOA Concept

Technology's history is full of great ideas that -- for whatever reason -- never quite caught on. IBM is working with vendor and channel partners to ensure that the concept of service-oriented architectures (SOAs) doesn't become one of them.

On Wednesday, the company held a QandAmp;A panel session in San Francisco outlining the latest developments in its SOA efforts. The company also is hosting a meeting this week for about 300 of its top customers, but the media won't be allowed to attend. Thus, the press conference was arranged to give the media a chance to grill IBM's Steve Mills, software group senior vice president, and Michael Liebow, vice president of Web services for IBM's Global Services Division, as well as executives from several other companies.

Big Blue announced this week that it is partnering with Lawson Software to optimize and standardize Lawson's business-applications portfolio on IBM's open-standards-based software and hardware, and the companies will jointly market preintegrated solutions to customers. The two companies also will develop and market new vertical offerings for industries including health care, retail, government, education and financial services.

Mills expressed confidence that the latest developments would help SOAs become a more attractive option for organizations seeking to streamline their networks.

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"Companies have always wanted to integrate their business processes, but that's frequently been a problem," he says.

One of IBM's customers is the insurance provider Fireman's Fund. CIO Fred Matteson says the company has begun deploying SOAs because its old way of processing forms is too inefficient, and the company also wanted to architect its networks to be more flexible as it adds or subtracts personnel, depending on the economic climate.

"We needed to change our development model from fixed costs to variable costs for when we wanted to add temporary employees or new technologies, and to do that, we needed an IT infrastructure to support it," he says.

But despite the promise of SOAs and the gains they've made in certain sectors, the fact remains that a small portion of potential clients have actively adopted the technologies. Dean Hager, chief product officer at Lawson Software, says the reason for this is simple.

"The missing ingredient is packaged applications," he says. "When they're architected specifically for SOAs, that's when you'll start to see greater adoption."

But the pokey deployment rates aren't scaring away the SOA developer just yet.

"We see SOAs as the next 10 to 20 years of computing," says Manoj Saxena, CEO of Webify Solutions, a developer of business process software and services. "They enable business agility while leveraging the legacy investments of the past."

One suggestion the panelists had for anyone trying to sell SOAs is to focus on the less business-critical applications first.

"We picked our billing inquiry applications first," Matteson says. "By taking a very simple first step, we could easily make the SOA format available without taking a lot of business risks."

IBM partner Lawson Software is staking its claim to the SOA space with its Landmark platform, announced earlier this week. Landmark has been under development for more than three years and aims to mitigate the amounts of computer code that have encumbered business software. Lawson is pitching Landmark as a model that dramatically reduces the source coding required, resulting in virtually error-free, consistent Java code. Hager says Lawson will be releasing Landmark-based products within 12 months and will re-engineer its existing products around the platform during the next few years.

He adds that Lawson is better positioned than Oracle and SAP because of its flexibility and price.

"We're going to the midmarket with it," he says. "The value proposition is its price -- which is about one-third of Oracle's and one-fourteenth of SAP's. The midmarket won't embrace it at the program level; only after it becomes a product will they get interested.