SOA: so far, so flexible, says IBM

Highly fashionable SOA have started to show real benefits

The theme of IBM Forum ’06 was innovation and, in particular, ICT’s role in enabling business innovation.

The conference’s main thrust was that business innovation needs flexible ICT systems, and that ICT systems need to have flexibility “architected” into them. The most fashionable architectural model of the last couple of years has been the service oriented architecture (SOA), and the companies that have embraced this approach have started to show real benefits.

During a recent visit to New Zealand, Robert Garnero, vice president of IBM’s Worldwide Websphere Technical Sales division, gave Computerworlda brief glimpse of the world-wide move towards SOA.

First, he sees most of the progress being made by large enterprise clients, although Garnero’s sample here could be skewed by his job and its focus. As far as Garnero is concerned, virtually all large financial services companies are moving over to SOA.

This drive improves granular reusability but because of this decomposition into small services it also creates an orchestration problem, where all these small services need to know where and when to run.

Interestingly, Garnero has observed that more than 75% of those major companies who are embarking on SOA projects are also using BPEL (business process execution language) as part of the orchestration layer. At this level, he sees BEA, Oracle and IBM as the main suppliers.

The orchestration level is of vital importance because it combines the ICT-oriented reusable mini-services into bigger business-oriented reusable services.

In linguistic terms, these business-oriented services become the semantics of the business language. By implementing the larger business-oriented services on top of a BPEL workflow engine they become both measurable and observable, without any significant code investment at the lower level.

The IBM Websphere portfolio includes tools for graphically designing these workflows, as well as entering cost elements and simulating the effect of the designs. Furthermore, designing workflows can be done within the framework of a set of key performance indicators.

Assuming that the business-oriented services are implemented at the correct level, it is then possible to report to managers about the key performance indicators and workflow effectiveness of those services within business-oriented dashboards.

This is where business intelligence (BI) kicks in. Because business managers can observe and measure the effectiveness of the workflows they can critique and refine these processes. As the workflows are implemented as configuration files within the workflow engine, it becomes a very simple task to implement new workflows.

While service oriented architecture can provide this power, Garnero warns of two potential problems.

First, a system with a few hundred services will require a formal governance system that can help with simple security and robustness, and also monitor execution times.

Second, SOAP/XML is not always the most appropriate binding mechanism for internal inter-service calls because of the performance overhead. To provide the flexibility of SOA without incurring too heavy a performance penalty IBM has developed Service Component Architecture (SCA). This enforces loose-coupling, but still allows for simple native RPC calls. Effectively, the component definition and the inter-component bindings become implementation-neutral.

Over the last few years, IBM has worked hard on its SOA offerings and it would appear it now has a comprehensive toolset for enhancing business flexibility.

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