Users wary of vendor-led SOA promises

Adopting a service oriented architecture (SOA) may herald a new era in application interoperability, but end-users are cautious about buying into vendor solutions that claim more than they can deliver.

Addressing an SOA conference in Sydney last week, IT executives said despite what vendors say SOA is not 'plug and play' with many of the configuration claims 'misleading'.

IAG's manager of strategy and architecture Paul Lund said a key lesson learned through the company's SOA developments is to "be vary of vendor promises regarding software and its capability".

"Make sure the software does what it says and there is a supply of skilled and experienced resources," Lund said. "Focus on demonstrated capabilities and standards."

That said, Lund recommends avoiding "heavy engineering" as much as possible and to "think big but start small".

"Choose a pilot project to build credibility and establish the organizational framework as early as possible," he said. "IAG today has some growing Web services in place with external providers which is low volume and low frequency, and there is growing demand for integration with partners, for example, brokers and credit unions."

IAG's challenge is to rationalize its 300 applications and 30 to 40 claims systems down to six core systems and "evolve them over time".

Central to the SOA vision is the single customer view project that aims to find and view customer details regardless of which system they are in with the changes propagated to core systems.

Also speaking at the conference was Queensland Health's I-Net project manager Norm Lawler who recommends not buying a SOA platform up-front but rather "learn what to look for first".

"Choose the first SOA Project carefully with limited scope to add useful business value," Lawler said. "SOA is not nirvana but only part of the overall solution needed by QH. We still need 'big apps' for core health functions, at least until the time comes to replace them."

Lawler said SOA is also not "plug and play, despite what vendors say". Vendors promoting "configuration, not coding" is misleading, according to Lawler who believes design is critical to avoid "WS spaghetti". Other considerations include version control and a roadmap of planned releases, and the infrastructure required to deliver large-scale SOA.

QH anticipates that adopting a SOA will aid the 2020 IT health vision statement of "seamless transfer of information across multiple independent systems".

"Queensland Health is almost like a walled city with little communications across the boundary. It's stovepipe heaven," he said. "We've ended up with fragmented information about patients and duplication is also a problem. We are still delivering stovepipe applications but we are trying to move away from that. Our real goal is application efficiency."

QH will now undertake a SOA pilot project with Accenture and Microsoft and is on the hunt for an SOA platform to replace its 'hand-coded' orchestration layer to allow external parties to interface into QH.

SOAs difficult but worth the effort

A SOA is very hard to attain but does enable a lot in the enterprise and can provide a lot of value, according to IT consulting firm Glintech's Asia Pacific managing director Dimitri Spyridopoulos.

"It requires more strategic thinking and the architecture is there to enable thorough solutions," Spyridopoulos said. "Look at SOA overall as the principles have been around for a while. Web services is one small piece of the architecture, there's also management."

Spyridopoulos believes SOAs are possible when driven down from the top through the organization and multiple SOA projects give better economies of scale.

"Politics is the main stumbling block and there is tension between the business and core infrastructure," he said. "Budgets are typically tied to the answer."

Glintech business development manager Clive Roberts also conceded that developing an enterprise architecture is hard but a lot of companies are starting to do pilots.

"Companies are getting introduced to Web services and starting to understand its development going forward," Roberts said.

Roberts said an important question to answer is how do organizations build governance around Web services development.

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