The Truth About SOA

By Christopher Koch
Thu, June 15, 2006

CIO

CIOs are chasing a distant dot on the horizon called agility (the ability to change IT quickly to fit business needs) and the dot is receding.

Fast.

A recent survey by the Business Performance Management Institute found that only 11 percent of executives say they’re able to keep up with business demand to change technology-enabled processes—40 percent of which, according to the survey, are currently in need of IT attention. Worse, 36 percent report that their company’s IT departments are having either "significant difficulties" (27 percent) or "can’t keep up at all" (9 percent).

Service-oriented architecture, or SOA, is the latest in a long line of highly hyped strategies designed to bring that disappearing dot back into view. By mirroring in technology important chunks of business processes ("credit check" or "customer record," for example), SOA promises to give companies a portfolio of services that can be mixed quickly and matched expeditiously to create automated business processes, thereby reducing application development time and costs by as much as 50 percent.

From its humble origins in object-oriented design and component-based software development methodologies, SOA has moved into a rarefied realm of expectations. SOA, the story goes, isn’t merely designed to remake IT; it’s going to be a magic bullet to transform the businesses that IT serves too.

CIOs, usually a skeptical crowd, are helping drive these expectations. According to a recent Forrester Research survey, 46 percent of large-enterprise SOA users (and about 27 percent of SOA users at midsize and smaller enterprises) said they’re using SOA to "achieve strategic business transformation." Surveys from other research companies report the same enthusiasm, with "competitive advantage" being the most popular expectation in a Summit Strategies survey, and the ability to "develop new capabilities and products" topping the list for Aberdeen Group’s respondents. In a recent CIO/Computerworld survey, 77 percent of respondents said SOA would result in greater business flexibility.

And it may do all that and more.

Just not yet.

Even Harder Than You Think

SOA is far from being a proven concept (only 16 percent of companies in the Aberdeen survey have more than 24 months of experience with SOA technologies), and the companies that have had the most success with it so far are those that always have success with technology: big companies with big IT budgets whose business is technology-based (think telecom and financial services). They also tend to have supportive, technologically sophisticated business leaders.

For companies without these advantages, SOA may not be the panacea it’s being made out to be.

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