Service Oriented Architecture is not an expensive suite of software products as the large software vendors would like to sell you. SOA is an architectural pattern. A pattern is a well-described, proven way of doing something that has evolved out of multiple attempts (successes and failures) across an entire community of professionals. SOA is a best-practice way of constructing an enterprise software architecture to better suit the evolving needs of your business.
The real challenge of adopting SOA is to change the way you and your organization think about enterprise architecture, not to change your information technology infrastructure yet again to continue the cold war-like arm's race against your competitors the software vendors have sold you on (at a great profit to them, I might add).
Why is SOA such a challenge? Simple, because it puts the focus of enterprise architecture on software architecture, not hardware and network architecture. The IT industry is in the midst of handoff between its first generation of infrastructure architects and a new generation of software architects. Businesses, who have come to rely heavily on their architects, are struggling to understand a new sofware-centric view of their technology portfolio. The old days were (somewhat) easy, let the IT guys handle the infrastructure, and we'll handle the business. Investments in technology were relatively simple and straightforward to both understand and manage - and the results were tangible assets that had an expected life and could be depreciated with comfortable precision.
The first generation of architects are extremely good at what they were asked to do - connect hardware through ever-growing and ever-speedier networks. Software, at least the software they intended to run the mission-critical elements of the business on, was considered to be a commodity - just like the hardware and network components they were used to implementing. Their view of software from an enterprise perspective was through the hardware nodes that the software was to be deployed on (this box is for General Ledger, that box is for Accounts Payables, this box is for email, that box is for our website, and so on ...). Rack it, stack it, connect it up, and turn it on.
The new generation of architects don't think of software only in terms of how it is deployed. Disrupting forces like the Internet, Mobile Computing, Virtualization, and Cloud Computing are making physical hardware and networks a ubiquitos (and somewhat abstract) concept. With the changes brought about by these forces, it is not likely that the IT group of the future will even continue to manage physical technology assets within business-owned data centers anymore.
So if IT departments are no longer managing hardware and networks for the business, what will that leave them with? Will IT cease to exist as a business-critical function within the enterprise? The answer, of course, is no (or else I'd be learning a new trade instead of blogging about this one). The answer is that IT departments will "move up the food-chain" within the business - becoming newly responsible for managing and securing its intellectual property (IP).
IP is the beating heart of today's business. It is composed of the knowledge and the processes that form the foundation of a business and give it its unique competitive differentiation within the marketplace. Knowledge and processes are modeled as software, not hardware - and those models can no longer be confined to the physical boundaries of hardware and networks. Look no further than Amazon, Google and other major internet-based companies that have survived the dot.com bubble to form the new guard of today's business for proof of this paradigm shift is real.
So how does this all tie back to SOA? SOA is simply a better way of managing the knowledge and processes that form the IP of your business. SOA is a better way because it is a software architecture that, like the knowledge and processes it manages, is not confined to the physical boundaries of hardware and networks.
So, if I shouldn't approach SOA the way I've approached technology investments in the past, by going out and buying some components from a vendor, connecting them up, and turning them on; how should I approach it? This will be the subject of my next blog - Part II in this series.