Who’s Killing SOA?

Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is now well past its hype phase, and is fast approaching a critical crossroads. Will enterprises resolve their current architectural challenges, allowing SOA to become the predominant approach to Enterprise Architecture worldwide? Or will it succumb to the pressures of confusion, misdirection, and ignorance that assail it, and become a tired label that signifies little more than a set of product features? We’ve seen this sad conclusion before with Enterprise Application Integration — once a promising architectural approach, now a euphemism for expensive, inflexible integration middleware. Will SOA suffer the same fate?

SOA, fortunately, has not yet gone down this path, although the crossroads that will determine SOA’s future is fast approaching. And yet, the forces that assail SOA are assembling on all sides. It is time for a rallying cry! Let us recognize the threats that SOA faces, in the hopes that shining light on them will help overcome them. It is not yet too late to save SOA, but time is running out.

Threats from All Sides
ZapThink, of course, has already recognized several of the threats that assail SOA today. Other challenges may come as more of a surprise, and may raise the hackles of individuals who may never have thought they were part of the problem. Nevertheless, by understanding the greater forces that impede SOA’s success, we can better overcome them. Here, then, are the forces that ZapThink believes are killing SOA.

Integration platform vendors. You’re a software vendor with a product line chock full of proprietary, tightly-coupled integration middleware. License revenue is suffering as customers look for more flexible, less expensive ways of leveraging their diverse information technology (IT) resources. As a result, you are looking at SOA. Your software, however, does not lend itself to SOA best practices — loose coupling, composable Services, and flexibility in general are all capabilities that you failed to build into your software. What to do?

Reinventing your company and rearchitecting your software from the ground up is far too expensive and time-consuming, and after all, you already have the older middleware in the can. The only option is to slap Web Services interfaces on your stuff, call it an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), and sell it as SOA middleware. Hopefully your customers won’t notice the old wine in new bottles. After all, that’s what marketing is for!

Not every integration vendor has taken this route, but many have. You can identify them when their sales people make statements like “ESBs are necessary for SOA,” and when their marketing deemphasizes the more significant SOA infrastructure challenges of governance, quality, and management, in favor of distracting information like “underground” videos that convey no indication of a true SOA value proposition.

Enterprise architects. EAs are supposed to have a comprehensive perspective on the business and the role that IT plays in supporting its varied and changing needs. While many EAs do have the rare combination of business and technical acumen necessary to understand how SOA best practices can drive business solutions, many do not. Time and again, architects who find themselves nominally in the role of EA actually only focus on part of the problem.

ZapThink frequently interacts with such architects who may be perfectly competent business architects or technical architects, but lack the skills or vision to connect the dots between the two. And yet, SOA is an approach to Enterprise Architecture that cuts across business and technology. You can recognize EAs that act as SOA impediments by their lack of understanding of the tight relationship between Business Process Management (BPM) and SOA, or mistaken beliefs that SOA is a technical application architecture, that it requires Web Services, or that the best way to get SOA is by purchasing it from a vendor.

Certain industry analysts. The SOA analyst space has largely settled out, as analysts who didn’t fully understand SOA moved on to other focus areas, leaving a reasonably strong cadre who are providing real value to their clients. Unfortunately, this trend did not have its desired effect on the leading IT analyst firm. Because they are the leader, vendors know they must pay the analyst firm to position them well in certain markets, or if they pay the analyst firm really well, the firm will actually attempt to create a market around the vendor, naturally identifying the high-paying vendor as the leader.

The SOA “market” and many related three-letter acronym (TLA) “markets” suffered this obfuscation. Remember Integrated Service Environments (ISEs)? The analyst firm postulated that ISEs were going to be a key SOA market, and several vendors paid the high ticket price for this particular bandwagon and jumped on board. Unfortunately for them, the ISE marketplace never materialized, and the bandwagon’s wheels fell off.

The fact of the matter is, SOA is not a market at all (hence the quotes in the preceding paragraph). Since SOA is a set of best practices, products may help their customers implement SOA, but no market category contains products that can provide SOA to their customers. In fact, since vendors have been “SOA enabling” products in market segments across the IT industry, you could argue that virtually the entire IT market is the SOA market!

CIOs. You’d think that every CIO would be all over SOA. After all SOA can reduce integration cost, increase business visibility and agility, increase asset reuse, and ease regulatory compliance. What’s not to love? For any organization that faces any or all of these problems, SOA is a no-brainer. And yet, the CIO is rarely the SOA champion for the IT organization.

The reasons for this lack of insight are many and varied. Many CIOs are nontechnical, and as a result don’t understand, and often fear, architecture of any kind. Others are so driven by quarterly results that a long-term, iterative initiative like enterprise SOA is out of the question. Still others insist on project-based IT funding to meet the needs of individual lines of business, a funding mechanism virtually guaranteed to slow down any initiative that seeks to reuse assets across the IT organization the way that SOA encourages.

Fortunately, you can recognize clueful CIOs because they understand the business value SOA can provide, they are willing to fund initial SOA iterations, and as the IT organization delivers value with those early projects, the CIO authorizes more of the same. Unfortunately, however, such executives are few and far between.

Large consulting firms. Because SOA consists of best practices, if anyone has the potential of offering SOA to their customers, it’s the consulting firms. Add the fact that SOA at least has the potential of being an enterprisewide initiative, and all the large system integrators (SIs) smell opportunity. As a result, they are all building SOA teams, and investing heavily in bringing their SOA offering to market.

The problem they are all facing, however, is a shortage of consultants who truly understand how to plan and implement SOA. They end up assigning the few such architects they have to playing a critical sales role, helping to close big deals. Once the paperwork is complete, however, the SOA experts move onto the next deal, leaving a team of junior consultants holding the bag.

The result is an epidemic of troubled and failing SOA initiatives that cut across large enterprises around the world. And with failed projects come skepticism, recrimination, and yes, lawsuits. ZapThink’s expert witness business is picking up substantially, as enterprises battle their consultants over whether such failed projects delivered SOA at all.

Business executives. Fifty years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there’s no question that the titans of industry were entirely comfortable with the complexity and power of the factories they commanded. But today, more than fifty years after the beginning of the Information Revolution, it’s still unusual to find CEOs or CFOs who are truly comfortable with the fact that their businesses run on IT. They see IT as a black box they pour money into — and even today, when whole industries like financial services deal with no other product than bits on a wire, these executives remain woefully ignorant of the true power, capabilities, risks, and challenges of IT.

For such executives, SOA is too “techie” a concept to understand or pay attention to. It’s a losing battle to present SOA as a solution to business problems to the boardroom. The best SOA champions in such organizations can do is try to slip SOA initiatives into budgets under the radar, in the hopes that no one will notice. It’s no wonder SOA achieves little success at such organizations.

The ZapThink Take
Lest ZapThink be accused of casting stones, we should pose the question as to whether ZapThink is part of the problem as well. Our audience often considers us to be SOA cheerleaders of sorts, and in a way, we are, so this new tone may come as a surprise. So our question to our audience today is whether the get tough aspect of this ZapFlash is helpful. Also tell us, do you feel that SOA is truly in jeopardy? Which forces do you feel are most responsible for the dangerous situation SOA finds itself in? And most importantly, how can we work together to overcome the challenges, and craft SOA into the mature, ubiquitous approach we all desire?