The State of Worldwide SOA Adoption: Is the US Behind?

Is the United States behind the rest of the world with regards to SOA adoption and maturity? Probably not, but it certainly isn’t ahead. Indeed, most of the largest, advanced, and oft-quoted examples of SOA projects in both the press and by software vendors in 2006 were in Europe, Canada, Asia, or Australia. To provide further evidence that the “overseas” markets really get and are spending real dollars on SOA, ZapThink spent a full six weeks on the road in the last two months of 2006 providing training, education, direct advisory, and speaking with end-user clients, of which only one day was spent in the United States.

Is it a fluke that the world is moving towards SOA in lockstep, with certain geographies moving faster than they have before? There might be lots of factors contributing to worldwide growth of SOA. One macroeconomic issue might be the weak US dollar and heavily US-dominated base of vendors contributing to a larger pull of overseas money for SOA. Another issue is that the US is dominated by most of the large software vendors, and they are creating so much noise in the local marketplace that it is confusing the local end-user community.

Some have posited that traditional, non-SOA efforts such as traditional EAI and legacy integration approaches are so dominant in the US that SOA is a much harder sell here than in other countries where EAI didn’t make as much of a dent. In particular, many of the existing vendors selling SOA technologies still sell older forms of integration and middleware that compete for dollars, mind share, and organizational support with the evolutionary approach to SOA. Or it might simply be that US end-user firms just don’t like to talk much about what they are doing with SOA, while the rest of the world is happier to be chatty. Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that the SOA phenomenon has reached a global acceptance much faster than previous technologies.

Europe: SOA Tiger?
An oft quoted reason for European fervor for SOA is that enterprise architecture as a practice is more widely respected and practiced in Europe than it is in the US. Some believe that the IT community in the US is perceived as developer-centric, coding cowboys that care not a whit about architecture. (“Architects? We don’t need no stinkin’ architects.”) While this is a generalization that most likely isn’t true, most large European-based IT shops see enterprise architecture as a way to guarantee that projects don’t go off into the weeds with developers doing their thing without a central coordinating philosophy and organization. In essence, they see a distinct difference between architecture and development and the roles of architects and developers, whereas that precise topic seems to be an item for debate in the US.

One other factor contributing to the European dominance of SOA implementation case studies might be the fact that many large US firms now have a European center of gravity due to the results of worldwide acquisition and consolidation activity. Daimler-Chrysler, ING, ABN Amro, BP Plc, HSBC, and British American Tobacco (BAT) are just some of the multinational firms with European-based headquarters and significant SOA case studies. Now, that’s not to say that within those firms SOA activity isn’t happening in the US. On the contrary, we are finding many US-based projects with European-headquartered firms in which both the funding and impetus for those SOA projects originated and were delivered in the US. However, many of these organizations centralize enterprise architecture as a whole within the organization, or at the very least federate such activity in groups in a way that promotes communication between disparate parts of the organization. This cross-pollination leads to true globalization of EA efforts with the result that the US just isn’t ahead as much as some would think.

Taking a Global SOA Perspective
The information technology-centric world has globalized to the point that the enabling technologies of the past few decades have made country borders relatively irrelevant, let alone the boundaries of the organization. Location-independent Services that can be composed (or mashed up) on an ad hoc basis in a loosely-coupled manner provide value to an organization whether their offices are in London, Riyadh, or New Delhi. This freedom of composition and looseness of corporate boundaries is a relatively new phenomenon, or at least has only become widespread since the widespread acceptance of the Internet.

In prior technology eras, corporate networks served as authoritative boundaries beyond which information could not flow without significant cost and effort. As such, while global networks surely existed prior to the Internet, they had limited reach. The result was technology adoption that followed the modes of vendor density, marketing dollars, and direct sales outreach: North America followed by Europe and then Japan, Australia, the remainder of Asia, and then Middle East and Africa.

Now, the proliferation of Internet-based application capabilities, architectures that assume ubiquitous and global access, and Web 2.0 phenomena that encourage the global nature of social networks have resulted in a global adoption of technology that follows the people rather than the marketing dollars. In this vein, the cultures and organizations that have the greatest desire and benefit tend to adopt technologies first leaving the others behind. In the case of SOA, it seems that Europe might have more to gain than the US from the adoption of loosely-coupled, composite, and reusable Services that exist in the face of IT heterogeneity.

Regardless of the reasons for the global reach of SOA, the net result is that no multi-national company can afford to avoid or overlook the issues associated with global distributed computing. Issues related to international regulatory compliance, internationalization and localization, support for multi-ethnic cultures, languages, and business practices must be the method de facto to be supported in any SOA initiative rather than an after-thought once the application is delivered in a particular language or cultural bias.

The ZapThink Take
Now, just so you don’t think that global adoption is limited to just North America and Europe, ZapThink has seen surprising and substantial uptick in SOA adoption in Australia, India, Korea, China, Singapore, parts of Latin and South America, and the Middle East. Many of these global initiatives have a particular industry bent, such as a strong telecommunications presence in Korea, banking and insurance in Australia, government in Singapore, manufacturing and services in China and India, and retail in the Latin and South American regions. But regardless of the reasons why SOA is being adopted in those regions, it is clear that no particular region is that far behind the rest of the pack. Indeed, it seems the world is moving in relative lock-step down the path towards SOA.

Just as governance is no longer an option for those seriously pursuing SOA, so too is the option to avoid considering the global impact of the SOA effort. After all, with the rest of the world leading the charge for SOA, there’s much to be gained by providing the sort of Services that loosely-couple not just the infrastructure and the business process, but also the regional biases that are unwittingly encoded into applications.

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