The 4 Pillars of SOA

December 29, 2007 at 3:15 am Leave a comment

I thought that I’d start my first technical post on a buzzword that has already been overused (and abused) quite a bit – SOA. Many books have been written about SOA and this post is not about going deep into SOA, but more so, an introduction into what SOA is at a very high level. Over the next few posts, I will get deeper into SOA, what it entails, what the best practices are, how companies can build out a road map to get started on their SOA journey, why governance is important and much more.

SOA stands for Service Oriented Architecture. Over the years, there has been a transition from mainframes to client server to the web. As a result, many companies have a hodge podge of applications, technologies and infrastructure in their IT environment. Disparate languages (COBOL, Java, Perl, .NET, etc), different platforms (Microsoft, Linux, IBM, etc) and different databases and data sources (EDI, flat files, XML, relational, object oriented, etc) means that often one application cannot talk to and access data from other applications within a company. Customer data might be spread out over 2 or 3 data sources. Business processes exist only on paper and hence there is no automation. Multiple applications need to be accessed to gain insight into customer information. Business logic is strewn all across the place, making it hard to keep track of and maintain duplicate logic. The business folks keep churning out new requirements while the technical folks can’t keep up with the requests and instead keep building non-reusable, highly monolithic applications that take up time, energy and money and produce little in terms of future benefits to the business. The list goes on…

SOA is an architectural approach that tackles these problems head on, aimed at breaking down these siloed applications and data sources and creating the potential to share processes, logic and data amongst applications within and outside the corporate walls. At it’s very core, it is concerned with building services out of existing and new applications such that they can be composed together to quickly build newer applications. This should result in a more adaptive business, shorter development cycles, more maintainable code, faster time to market, centralized business logic that is easier to debug and test, etc.

When people think of SOA, they think of web services – how to build them, how to test them, deploy them and monitor them. But that is only but a part of the bigger SOA picture. When companies think of embarking on SOA, they need to approach it from a much broader perspective, otherwise their SOA initiatives will fail (and a lot of them have). So what the are the areas that make up an SOA implementation? In my opinion, any SOA architect needs to tackle SOA from 4 angles. I call them my 4 pillars of SOA:

1) Architecture
This aspect deals with the “A” in SOA. What do we have in place? What can we harvest? Where are we today and where to do we need to be? How does the architecture reflect the business needs (this is very important because at the end of the day, you are not doing SOA because it’s cool – you are doing it to make your business more agile), what are the gaps in the current and future state and how do we bridge that gap? What standards and protocols should be leveraged to build open, extensible systems? What are the entry points into SOA and where/how do you start? These are the issues that need to be addressed as part of an overall SOA strategy.

2) Infrastructure
So you want to build services to get your applications talking. But in order for your architecture to be robust and scalable, you need the right infrastructure in place. By infrastructure, I mean things like an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) to mediate message formats and protocols, a portal to tie in disparate web applications, a repository to house your reusable assets, a registry to enable users to discover your assets at runtime, security infrastructure, monitoring infrastructure to manage service level agreements (SLAs), virtualization infrastructure, etc. Without infrastructure, you’ll soon go from a hodge podge of siloed applications to a hodge podge of services developed by different teams without appropriate documentation on who has developed what, what’s available for reuse, which projects are consuming what, how much ROI are you getting from SOA, and a whole slew of other problems. This is not to imply that everything needs to be in place right away, but it is important to note the need for infrastructure and to have an incremental roadmap in place to ramp up on infrastructure gradually.

3) Service Engineering
Many consulting companies say that they do SOA. They might have accidentally done SOA for their customers in the past by building out a few web services for them and touting that as their foray into SOA. However, that is far from being experienced in SOA. As I mentioned earlier, SOA is not just web services. But being able to servicize assets is core to SOA and building out services willy nilly is a recipe for disaster. Service Engineering is a well planned and thought out framework that lays out in great detail how to go about analyzing assets to harvest services, how to identify ideal candidates that can be servicized (service portfolio planning), release planning, how to build these services, how to test them, how to deploy them, monitor and manage them. Think of service engineering as start to finish best practices for planning out your service portfolio.

4) Governance
Another overused word in the world of SOA. Hopefully, you can see from this post that SOA is more than just about web services. I have worked on many complex SOA projects with customers and from those experiences, I can tell you that it takes more than just service implementation for a SOA project to succeed. From the onset, a customer needs to be made aware of the costs of doing a SOA project. Proper teams need to be in place to manage SOA architecture and infrastructure decisions. Policies need to be created and enacted, both at the enterprise, project and service level to track progress and monitor metrics. All this is dealt with using proper governance frameworks. Governance means different things to different people – to a developer it means conforming to project requirements and guidelines set forth by the architect and reusing components that already exist. To an architect it means ensuring that developers are complying to development standards, leveraging reusable assets, tying services to policies, etc. To a business person, it means something different – they are more concerned with SLAs and making sure that IT is delivering what it promised. So IT governance frameworks such as ITIL, and more specifically, SOA governance frameworks need to be put in place to make SOA a success. But make no mistake, governance takes a lot of work and that is why a lot of companies shy away from it. The trick is to not jump neck deep into governance, but as with SOA, do it piece meal – do what is relevant today and leave room to grow into tomorrow’s requirements…but start SOA with governance, instead of making it an afterthought.

This hopefully gives you some insight into SOA and what it entails. The message here is not that you need all this in place right away before starting on your SOA journey, but that along the way, these 4 areas need equal amounts of attention if your SOA projects are to be deemed successful. In subsequent posts, I will dig deeper into these areas, along with best practices, roadmaps, etc.


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