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The Enduring Relevance of SOA

The Enduring Relevance of SOA

About seven years ago, service-oriented architecture was the big new thing, sparking a series of projects at The Open Group. "It's very clear that there is still an interest, and indeed a renewed interest, in SOA from the IT community," said Chris Harding, who co-chairs The Open Group's SOA Work Group.

By Dana Gardner
10/29/12 5:00 AM PT

There's been a resurgent role of service-oriented architecture (SOA) as a practical and relevant ingredient for effective design and use of cloud, mobile and big-data technologies.

The concept of "architecture is destiny," especially when it comes to hybrid services delivery and management, has become popular. SOA is proving instrumental in allowing the needed advancements over highly distributed services and data, when it comes to scale, heterogeneity support, and governance.

For a full exploration of this topic, listen to a panel discussion featuring Chris Harding, director of interoperability at The Open Group; Nikhil Kumar, president of Applied Technology Solutions and co-chair of the SOA reference architecture projects within The Open Group; and Mats Gejnevall, enterprise architect at Capgemini and co-chair of The Open Group SOA work group. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner.


Download the podcast (39:14 minutes) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts:

Dana Gardner: Why this resurgence in the interest around SOA?

Chris Harding: My role in The Open Group is to support the work of our members on SOA, cloud computing and other topics. We formed the SOA Work Group back in 2005, when SOA was a real emerging hot topic, and we set up a number of activities and projects. They're all completed.

I was thinking that the SOA Work Group would wind down, move into maintenance mode, and meet once every few months or so, but we still get a fair attendance at our regular Web meetings.

In fact, we've started two new projects and we're about to start a third one. So, it's very clear that there is still an interest, and indeed a renewed interest, in SOA from the IT community within The Open Group.

Larger Trends

Gardner: Nikhil, do you believe that this has to do with some of the larger trends we're seeing in the field, like cloud Software as a Service (SaaS)? What's driving this renewal?

Nikhil Kumar: What I see driving it is three things. One is the advent of the cloud and mobile, which requires a lot of cross-platform delivery of consistent services. The second is emerging technologies, mobile, big data, and the need to be able to look at data across multiple contexts.

The third thing that's driving it is legacy modernization. A lot of organizations are now a lot more comfortable with SOA concepts. I see it in a number of our customers. I've just been running a large enterprise architecture initiative in a Fortune 500 customer.

At each stage, and at almost every point in that, they're now comfortable. They feel that SOA can provide the ability to rationalize multiple platforms. They're restructuring organizational structures, delivery organizations, as well as targeting their goals around a service-based platform capability.

So legacy modernization is a back-to-the-future kind of thing that has come back and is getting adoption. The way it's being implemented is using RESTful services, as well as SOAP services, which is different from traditional SOA, say from the last version, which was mostly SOAP-driven.

Gardner: Mats, do you think that what's happened is that the marketplace and the requirements have changed and that's made SOA more relevant? Or has SOA changed to better fit the market? Or perhaps some combination?

Mats Gejnevall: I think that the cloud is really a service delivery platform. Companies discover that to be able to use the cloud services, the SaaS things, they need to look at SOA as their internal development way of doing things as well. They understand they need to do the architecture internally, and if they're going to use lots of external cloud services, you might as well use SOA to do that.

Also, if you look at the cloud suppliers, they also need to do their architecture in some way and SOA probably is a good vehicle for them. They can use that paradigm and also deliver what the customer wants in a well-designed SOA environment.

Gardner: Let's drill down on the requirements around the cloud and some of the key components of SOA. We're certainly seeing, as you mentioned, the need for cross support for legacy, cloud types of services, and using a variety of protocol, transports, and integration types. We already heard about REST for lightweight approaches and, of course, there will still be the need for object brokering and some of the more traditional enterprise integration approaches.

This really does sound like the job for an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB). So let's go around the panel and look at this notion of an ESB. Some people, a few years back, didn't think it was necessary or a requirement for SOA, but it certainly sounds like it's the right type of functionality for the job.

Loosely Coupled

Harding: I believe so, but maybe we ought to consider that in the cloud context, you're not just talking about within a single enterprise. You're talking about a much more loosely coupled, distributed environment, and the ESB concept needs to take account of that in the cloud context.

Gardner: Nikhil, any thoughts about how to manage this integration requirement around the modern SOA environment and whether ESBs are more or less relevant as a result?

Kumar: In the context of a cloud we really see SOA and the concept of service contracts coming to the fore. In that scenario, ESBs play a role as a broker within the enterprise. When we talk about the interaction across cloud-service providers and cloud consumers, what we're seeing is that the service provider has his own concept of an ESB within its own internal context.

If you want your cloud services to be really reusable, the concept of the ESB then becomes more for the routing and the mediation of those services, once they're provided to the consumer. There's a kind of separation of concerns between the concept of a traditional ESB and a cloud ESB, if you want to call it that.

The cloud context involves more of the need to be able to support, enforce, and apply governance concepts and audit concepts, the capabilities to ensure that the interaction meets quality of service guarantees. That's a little different from the concept that drove traditional ESBs.

That's why you're seeing API management platforms like Layer 7, Mashery, or Apigee and other kind of product lines. They're also coming into the picture, driven by the need to be able to support the way cloud providers are provisioning their services. As Chris put it, you're looking beyond the enterprise. Who owns it? That's where the role of the ESB is different from the traditional concept.

Most cloud platforms have cost factors associated with locality. If you have truly global enterprises and services, you need to factor in the ability to deal with safe harbor issues and you need to factor in variations and law in terms of security governance.

The platforms that are evolving are starting to provide this out of the box. The service consumer or a service provider needs to be able to support those. That's going to become the role of their ESB in the future, to be able to consume a service, to be able to assert this quality-of-service guarantee, and manage constraints or data-in-flight and data-at-rest.

Gardner: Mats, are there other aspects of the concept of ESB that are now relevant to the cloud?

Entire Stack

Gejnevall: One of the reasons SOA didn't really take off in many organizations three, four, or five years ago was the need to buy the entire stack of SOA products that all the consultancies were asking companies to buy, wanting them to buy an ESB, governance tools, business process management tools, and a lot of sort of quite large investments to just get your foot into the door of doing SOA.

These days you can buy that kind of stuff. You can buy the entire stack in the cloud and start playing with it. I did some searches on it today and I found a company that you can play with the entire stack, including business tools and everything like that, for zero dollars. Then you can grow and use more and more of it in your business, but you can start to see if this is something for you.

In the past, the suppliers or the consultants told you that you could do it. You couldn't really try it out yourself. You needed both the software and the hardware in place. The money to get started is much lower today. That's another reason people might be thinking about it these days.

Gardner: It sounds as if there's a new type of on-ramp to SOA values, and the componentry that supports SOA is now being delivered as a service. On top of that, you're also able to consume it in a pay-as-you-go manner.

Harding: That's a very good point, but there are two contradictory trends we are seeing here. One is the kind of trend that Mats is describing, where the technology you need to handle a complex stack is becoming readily available in the cloud.

And the other is the trend that Nikhil mentioned: to go for a simpler style, which a lot of people term REST, for accessing services. It will be interesting to see how those two tendencies play out against each other.

Kumar: I'd like to make a comment on that. The approach for the on-ramp is really one of the key differentiators of the cloud, because you have the agility and the lack of capital investment (CAPEX) required to test things out.

But as we are evolving with cloud platforms, I'm also seeing with a lot of Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) vendor scenarios that they're trying the ESB in the stack itself. They're providing it in their cloud fabric. A couple of large players have already done that.

For example, Azure provides that in the forward-looking vision. I am sure IBM and Oracle have already started down that path. A lot of the players are going to provide it as a core capability.


Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also produces BriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Follow Dana Gardner on Twitter. Disclosure: The Open Group sponsored this podcast.


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