Wagner: Why SOA matters

Service-oriented architecture might seem difficult, but it offers government a way out of the swamp

The federal government has a huge set of responsibilities, limited resources and business processes that have evolved over decades. Work on the government’s enterprise architecture has shown that many of those processes are obsolete, and the government needs to move toward a new and significantly different business architecture.

Given the size of the government, the process could take a while — and that is a problem.

We might be able to wait years for a complete migration, but we need to begin seeing benefits now. The service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach offers results in the near term while moving government toward the longer-term goal.

Let’s take a brief look at the natural world to see what a good strategy can do. Bats and birds both fly, but their wings work in different ways. The panda’s thumb is not a thumb at all, but it does a good job of stripping the leaves from bamboo. The ancestors of bats, birds and pandas evolved solutions to their “business problems” that still work in the animals we see today. Perhaps we, too, can evolve.

A SOA-based approach breaks down applications into services and enables them to be used by other business processes. It makes incremental changes that put selection pressures on systems so they can evolve. By facilitating business services that support customers, that approach solves problems today. By connecting customers to services, that approach enables more effective approaches to evolve. By building a body of experience, agencies can change strategies based on new insights and evolving demands.

The Maritime Domain Awareness Data Sharing Community of Interest demonstrates what a SOA-based approach can achieve. The intelligence community and the Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation departments participate in that collaborative effort. Strategically, it is important to those agencies to know which ships are where, who is operating them, what they are carrying and where they are going — in other words, they need situational awareness. Any future architecture will also need to provide that awareness.

Systems in place collect information on ships for the Navy, Coast Guard, DOT and Office of Naval Intelligence. They each collect different data and were implemented for different reasons, but they co-exist. The stage is set for that approach to evolve further to meet the continually changing requirements of the participants and other users.

Making the SOA approach work requires technical and management skills. On a technical level, we must embrace standards and develop common semantics so we can make a technical solution work. We also need to retrain some of our developers and provide them with better tools.

The management issues are more difficult. We must change our thinking from a systems-oriented framework to one based on services. We need more formal processes for identifying, fielding and funding those services. We need to recognize the benefits of sharing. It takes a lot of leadership, a lot of skill and perhaps a bit of luck to get multiple organizations to work together as the maritime community of interest does. We need to learn from such successes so we can have more of them.

Wagner is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He recently retired after more than 30 years in government, where he served for a time as acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.

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