SOA demand builds slowly

Emerging market has generated a lot of talk but not many funded projects

WebMethods was quick to announce Aug. 2 that the Internal Revenue Service had selected Fabric, the company's flagship business integration product suite, to anchor the agency's business systems modernization program.

But the IRS contract is one of only a few examples of the spread of service-oriented architecture (SOA) among federal agencies. Experts agree that SOA will play an increasingly important role in the development of agency information technology infrastructures, but it could be awhile before any substantial market for SOA solutions develops.

SOAs loosely link various software-based services using middleware technology to provide business applications. HTML, Extensible Markup Language and Web Services Description Language are common technologies that can be part of an SOA. No single SOA product exists, but offerings such as Fabric and IBM's WebSphere platform can become the basis of an architecture.

An SOA must be closely mapped to an organization's business rules and processes, and can support integration and consolidation activities in an enterprise. But so far there's been more sizzle than steak in the talk about SOA.

"There's lots of public discussion within government about what can be done in the future through SOA, but it's not clear what real SOA things are happening," said Jan Popkin, chief strategist at Telelogic. Agency IT executives "are pushing the virtue of SOA for the future, as are vendors, but where are the funded projects?"

Popkin was formerly chief executive officer of Popkin Software, which Telelogic acquired this year. Popkin Software's System Architect is widely used in government as an enterprise architecture modeling tool.

Almost everyone seems to have bought into the idea of SOA as a framework in which to develop and deploy Web services, said Sam Ceccola, chief federal architect at BEA Systems. But much confusion exists about how agencies can start moving to an SOA. And one major point of confusion, he said, is just what SOA is all about.

"It's more about methodology than what tools and technology are available," Ceccola said. "People have to be aware of what characteristics they need to consider that will meet the challenges of today but that also allow them the flexibility to deal with future unknowns and that will provide the ability to do SOA 'to the edge,' to the end user."

Owen Ambur, chief XML strategist at the Interior Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Community of Practice, said he believes there is a gap between theory and practice in SOA. Agencies want to buy whole product solutions, and vendors want to sell such solutions. But in reality, he said, SOAs are far too complex for a single offering to address.

BEA Systems sees a market opportunity in tools that will help with this kind of decision-making. It recently introduced what it calls the Federal SOA Readiness Self-Assessment Tool to enable agencies to plan and implement an SOA. WebMethods' Fabric goes further because it provides a common framework that agencies such as the IRS can use to migrate their current environments, which are often fragmented and contain systems that don't communicate with one another, to a more interoperable solution.

But SOAs are also intended to help decision-making. "A lot of customers don't have a 360-degree view of their environment so they will use Fabric to help them begin pilot projects and do the groundwork to later scale them to enterprise deployments," said Lance Hill, vice president of solutions marketing at webMethods.

But the urgency that has developed around SOA is due more to hype from analysts and vendors than to agencies launching projects, he said.

"It's become an opportunity for people to define the SOA marketplace to suit their own situations, which is why every software vendor out there seems to have some kind of SOA strategy," he said. "But most customers are not that polarized. It's just not a life or death issue for them."

Most commercial and government organizations still see SOAs as disruptive, said Jason Bloomberg, a senior analyst at market watcher ZapThink.

Agency officials understand that if they move ahead with an SOA, they'll run into arguments about control, politics, funding and nontechnical issues that result from building shared services.

"For a lot of vendors, SOA is an opportunity to come out with new and improved products, so it's a bandwagon that a lot of companies are jumping on," Bloomberg said. "However, it's hard to come up with a product that actually helps people with SOA."

Nevertheless, he said he believes that agencies eventually will deploy SOAs.

"Most organizations have SOA as part of their road maps, and some have pilots under way or have rolled out departmental SOAs," Bloomberg said. "There's a significant ramp-up on the way [of SOA deployments], but full-blown enterprise SOAs are still a ways away."

OASIS blueprints to outline need for SOA

Many observers agree that the service-oriented architecture (SOA) business would benefit from successful deployments that organizations could refer to or at least a set of comprehensive templates they could use as the basis for SOA plans.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) is doing its part by developing a set of vendor-neutral blueprints that outline concrete examples of real-world business requirements for SOAs.

The blueprints "will encourage the production of useful implementation examples and lower the risk of SOA initiatives overall," said Jason Bloomberg, a senior analyst at ZapThink.

Miko Matsumura, vice president of marketing at SOA vendor Infravio and proposed chairman of OASIS' new SOA Adoption Blueprints Technical Committee, said the blueprints will be helpful for government agencies because they'll include a wide range of the best accumulated wisdom on SOA.

"Government will need to interoperate with a large number of external entities, so agencies should really benefit from these blueprints," he said.

They should also help simplify the market and "create the kind of clarity needed to allow the whole SOA story to achieve some kind of structure," Matsumura said.

— Brian Robinson

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