SOAs: More Change Ahead for IT Consulting

The IT consulting rollercoaster ride is far from over. After experiencing explosive growth in the boom and then becoming one of the hardest hit segments of the IT industry in the inevitable bust, the IT professional services train is heading up the next hill. This time, it’s the movement toward Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs) based on Web Services that’s going to shake the system integration industry to its core.

This movement to SOAs presents both opportunities and threats to consulting firms: on the one hand, there will be an increased demand for architectural consulting, business process consulting and the implementation tasks associated with building SOAs. On the other hand, as SOAs take hold and Service-oriented process solutions supplant integration solutions, the market for system integration will dry up, requiring consultants who derive the majority of their revenue from integration projects to change their business focus.

The difference between Web Service and SOA Engagements
To understand the forces that threaten to change the system integration market, it’s important to understand how Web Services and SOA engagements are fundamentally different types of projects. Web Services offer a standards-based approach to integration for companies looking to reduce the cost and complexity of point-to-point integration between systems, independent of any architectural improvements they might make. As a result, many system integration firms have found that Web Services offer an important set of tools for integrating systems — in particular, heterogeneous systems. In many cases, today’s system integration projects that take advantage of Web Services are not particularly differentiated from those integration projects that use other integration technologies.

In other words, for the system integrator (SI), Web Services are often nothing more than another tool in the toolbox. A useful tool, to be sure, because many SIs use open source tools to build Web Services, and the skills needed to use such tools are less sophisticated (and hence, less expensive) than the skills needed to use proprietary integration tools like those that traditional enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors provide.

ZapThink’s research, however, uncovered several examples of extensive, coordinated use of Web Services in complex integration projects that are beyond the simple “tool in the belt” approach described above. In such examples, SIs are using Web Services to solve complex integration problems without the need to build a true SOA. Overall, ZapThink has identified three basic types of engagements that leverage Web Services:

  • Point-to-point integration applications of Web Services that use Web Services as an inexpensive adapter for connecting heterogeneous systems — Integration engagements that use Web Services in this manner are typically quite similar to more traditional integration projects that do not use Web Services.
  • The broad application of Web Services to complex integration projects — examples include n-tier projects like portals and eCommerce engagements, supply chain management projects, and EAI projects that use Web Services extensively throughout the project. Such projects typically expose coarse-grained business Services, but may not offer the location independence and loose coupling of an SOA.
  • True SOA engagements — projects that include architectural guidance at the enterprise level that provides a framework for building Services within the context of an SOA.

The difference between the first and second types of Web Services projects is mostly one of degree, but those two are fundamentally different from the third type of engagement, because the first two are integration engagements, while SOA engagements are architecture engagements. This contrast between integration and architecture within the context of PSO offerings forms a critical distinction that consulting firms must understand and leverage.

Long-term Shifts in Demand
Automating and managing business processes has historically been a difficult challenge for enterprises because of the inflexibility of their IT infrastructure. Fortunately, SOAs can provide the necessary flexibility: Service-oriented process is the Service-oriented abstraction layer for business process definition and execution that leverages the capabilities of SOAs. As Service-oriented process tools mature, system integration will no longer be a separate activity, but will be subsumed into the process orchestration and choreography activities within the Service-oriented process tools. Overall, integration will no longer be a separately identifiable market, as integration becomes a feature of all software as a direct result of the movement to Web Services-enable that software. What, then, will happen to system integrators when system integration becomes an automatic feature of all software?

Over the next five to seven years, the business process design, optimization, and execution consulting market will come to displace the system integration market. This shift depends upon the movement to SOAs, because business process management can only replace integration in the context of Service orientation. During this seven-year period, companies will require SOA architectural consulting, but the need for such consulting will eventually peak, as more companies become service oriented.

The above figure reflects the percentage of consulting time system integrators will devote to system integration, SOA consulting, and Service-oriented process consulting over time; for those PSOs who offer services other than system integration, this chart applies to that part of their business that currently consists of system integration. Naturally, existing architecture practices will move toward SOA engagements, and business process definition and optimization engagements will gradually involve Service-oriented process.

Riding the Rollercoaster
Because integration activities and architecture activities are quite different, there will be some system integrators who do not wish to provide SOA architectural services. Their customers will have to find SOA expertise elsewhere. Such system integrators will still find their integration work diminishing as their customers adopt SOAs, and will either need to transition their skills to the service-oriented process arena, or risk having their market erode substantially.

In general, the shifts in the IT consulting business represented in the figure indicate that many consulting firms will have to undergo extensive retraining and reorganization. However, such changes are familiar to the IT consulting world, with the shift from client/server to eBusiness/Web technologies, and the subsequent downturn. Some PSOs won’t survive, but others will roll with the changes and come out on top. The key to any consultant’s survival in the face of changing customer demands, of course, is to continue to focus on solving customer problems. As those problems change, so must the solutions.