SOA - service-oriented architecture - is one of the most talked about and least understood topics in IT today. It even has its own "Dummies" book. As an approach to building IT systems, SOA connects applications across a network via a common communications protocol, allowing organisations to reuse old software, often with the help of web services.
Saugatuck Technology predicts that up to two-thirds of IT departments will have a limited or full SOA production environment by next year.
Here are the six burning questions IT organisations face when they choose SOA.
1. Is anyone saving (or making money) using SOA?
Ashok Kumar of Avis Budget Group says he is. Avis began using SOA about two years ago in portions of the company to open new channels with travel partners. "They can now do direct business with us without having to go through a middleman. So it's saved them a couple bucks, saved us a couple of bucks," says Kumar, who is based in New Jersey and is director of services architecture information technology. "The cost of bringing on new partners is down to nothing now because of SOA."
Avis Budget can now bring on a new partner in a day instead of a month, he says, because with SOA it is just a matter of configuring a service rather than making large application changes. "When we started that the cost of bringing on a new partner was anywhere from US$40,000 to $50,000, now it's down to $3,000 or $4,000," he says.
Any company will face up-front costs associated with implementing SOA, but many IT experts say it can lower expenses in the long run. You can't look at SOA in terms of short-term return on investment, says industry analyst Judith Hurwitz, lead author of Service Oriented Architecture for Dummies.
"It's the type of technology that your real goal is reuse and the ability to loosely couple components together," Hurwitz says. "You can't look at this for short-term benefit because in fact the real gain happens when change happens."
Traditional approaches to building software assume you start from scratch and develop something designed to solve a specific problem, Hurwitz notes. SOA allows businesses to be flexible and seamlessly react to major changes. A business might not see much benefit from SOA for months after deployment, but if it is suddenly involved in an acquisition "there's a major change in their ability to cope with that change and react and then provide the software," Hurwitz says.
A related question people ask is how much money do organisations spend on SOA, says Forrester senior analyst Larry Fulton.
"It's a very difficult question to answer because, if five years ago I was going to build a new ERP system and today I'm going to build a new ERP system and I'm going to use SOA to do it, and I still spend $5 million on the project in software and what have you, is it really $5 million spent on SOA?" Fulton says. "It's not. It's $5 million spent on a business solution."
There are two kinds of payback with SOA, says Mike West of Saugatuck Technology. The first comes when IT can reduce the amount of money it spends providing services. West believes SOA adoption is still in its early stages, and that perhaps only 10% to 15% of businesses are using SOA and doing it in such a way to save money.
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