Among the ways to keep a service-oriented architecture (SOA) initiative on track, forming a center of excellence (COE) is a frequently named option. Indeed, a recent Forrester survey shows that having an SOA COE correlates with higher satisfaction with SOA. It is more interesting, however, to note that the most-valuable functions that SOA COEs perform, as judged by Forrester survey respondents, have to do with leadership and governance for SOA, not training on detailed technology skills. As architects plan for SOA and guide their organisation in its adoption, they should think of the SOA COE first as a governance body and only second as a training body.

Forrester asked survey respondents to rank order the most valuable functions of their SOA COE. Our analysis of the responses identifies five SOA COE functions as the most valuable:

1.Creating and maintaining SOA vision and plans.
2.Acting in an approval role as part of the SOA governance program.
3.Managing patterns for SOA implementations.
4.Managing the portfolio/library of SOA-based services.
5.Planning the future of the SOA technology base.

SOA and Web services are not the same thing. SOA is the design concepts; Web services are one (very important) technology stack for implementing those concepts. While SOA COEs do provide training on SOA and Web services standards and products, this top five list shows that guiding SOA design is a more-valuable goal for SOA COEs to pursue. The top five SOA COE practices are what they are because:

SOA vision provides the broad context for good design.

If the organisation doesn't know why it's doing SOA, it will have difficulty getting momentum. Without clear leadership and vision, many will find reason to resist, and even those who get on board with SOA will pull the initiative in different directions. With a strategic SOA vision focused around business design concepts, your people become focused on the right level of design for your most-important SOA-based services: business services. This also gives them a perspective for understanding how application services and infrastructure services are also important, but add value inside of IT, as opposed to the business value focus of business services.

Approval provides the best mentoring.

As opposed to providing only guidelines, training, or mentoring, active participation in SOA governance by approving SOA deliverables gives an SOA COE a strong position for leadership and for keeping SOA on track. When your SOA COE is involved in actually approving SOA deliverables, mentoring has real teeth. But even more, the two-way give and take between COE and project team members ensures that the design guidance the COE provides actually works in the real world.

Patterns provide concrete design guidance.

Patterns may be developed as guidance for implementing individual services or as reference architectures to guide the design of an entire SOA-based solution. Training and mentoring are good, but the more that expertise is encoded into patterns and sample deliverables, the easier to learn and follow it becomes. Patterns provide stronger guidance than design principles because they put the principles into practice in different contexts, showing more fully how they are to be applied and allowing many design decisions to be premade.

Available services must be organised to facilitate their use.

Whether via a spreadsheet, a Web page, or a formal SOA registry-repository, services need some type of organisation and cataloging that enables team members to use services when and where they should. In Forrester's conversations with clients, we find that firms' approaches are divided: Some take a library view of SOA services (a loosely organised collection of what projects have produced), while others take a portfolio view of SOA services (a planned, evolving, and coherent set of coordinated services). A library view is a starting point that ensures the availability of broad knowledge of what is available, but it doesn't provide the process or organisational discipline to actually use the service library. A more strategic portfolio view provides a much stronger basis for designing services into projects, even before the project budget is set.

Getting the technology base ready provides the base for service design.

When your organisation buys a new piece of technology infrastructure, it tends to stay around a long time. Because the technology becomes embedded in your applications, it will be hard to get rid of. If each team is making its own decisions for SOA technology, the resulting diversity will greatly increase the difficulty of taking an enterprise approach to SOA. When your COE has an advance plan for the evolution of your SOA technology base - including how your existing technologies fit into your SOA platform - it provides a solid base for the specification of patterns and the design of your services.

By addressing the more-important concerns of getting the design of your services right, these top five practices form a stronger foundation for the value of your SOA COE compared with simple training on SOA technology and standards. As your COE pursues these functions, it will by default build into these functions much of the necessary training on standards and products.