by David Rosenbaum

The Truth About Service Oriented Architecure (SOA)

Dec 01, 20063 mins

The long and winding road to SOA may have a surprise--an unpleasant one for CIOs--at its end.

It’s an IT truism that hype precedes take-up. That is, when you first hear about a new technology or process, it’s all wonderful. (It’s simple and fast to roll out; it will cut costs, make your business more agile and efficient, and give you washboard abs.) Then disillusion sets in. (Hey, this is pretty complicated; it’ll take me forever to implement; the ROI—if there’s an ROI—is somewhere down the road; and it won’t do a thing for all the flab settling in around my gut.) Finally, people actually start using it, and often the truth is that, under certain circumstances, it’s pretty good, although in no way a panacea for whatever challenges the organization faces.

Sometimes, of course, the ultimate reality never matches the original hype. Voice recognition? (“I want a flight to Boston.” “Houston?” “No, Boston.” “Not Boston?” “Yes, Boston!” “Please hold.”)

Artificial intelligence?

Still not so smart.

Service-oriented architecture?

Right now we seem to be passing out of the hype phase (“You gotta do it now! It’ll cut your development costs and guarantee IT-business alignment forever!”) and entering the disillusionment phase. Building an SOA, as we learn in “The Four Stages of Enterprise Architecture,” entails a long, drawn-out process that, according to two MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research studies—”IT Architecture as Strategy” and “IT-Driven Strategic Choices”—upon which the article is based, can take decades, according to Jeanne W. Ross, the studies’ principal research scientist.

There are lots of reasons why it will take so long. Before you can even begin thinking about encapsulating your company’s business processes in reusable services, you’ve first got to integrate all your various data silos (that’s Stage 1). Then you have to promulgate standard IT platforms across the enterprise (Stage 2). Then you have to optimize your IT and your business processes (Stage 3). And then, finally, you’re ready to begin figuring out which of these optimized processes can be expressed in technology and made available to the business users (Stage 4).

And what finally happens in Stage 4? Something a wee bit scary. In Stage 4, “the lines between IT and the business are blurring,” says David Saul, senior VP and head of the Office of Architecture at State Street, “and it’s clear that someone will have to manage both.” And that may put in jeopardy the careers of many CIOs who don’t have the firm handle on the business we’d all like. (You know who you are.)

Could you be innovating yourself out of a role in a future SOA-enabled enterprise, in which business users control IT? I asked Accenture CIO Frank Modruson just that, and he had these reassuring words: “The business always changes.” Which means that CIOs will always be needed to design new IT for new business needs.

Whew! Had me worried there for a moment. Do you feel reassured? Let us know.

David Rosenbaum, Managing Editor