Practical SOA for the Solution Architect

This is a story that has had a fairly long history, so stay with me till the end.

I've worked as an architect in the shared services space for almost a decade now, at some of Australia's biggest, richest and technologically diverse financial services organisations. During that time, I first heard about Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), learnt what it was about, bought into its philosophy and attempted to implement it at work.

And while I have seen a few successful examples of SOA projects (mostly individual services, truth be told), by and large, I did not see SOA having an impact at all at these large and reputed organisations. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on acquiring SOA tools from vendors as reputed as IBM and TIBCO, and many millions more were spent on integration projects using these tools, but somehow, the results failed to live up to the SOA promise. [I guess organisations need a terrorising CEO like Amazon's Jeff Bezos to achieve the benefits of SOA. Read the fascinating story of how an online bookstore built a platform that it now rents out to others.]

For a while, I lost faith. Influenced by a few cynical colleagues, I too began to think SOA was marketing hype and nothing more. But then, as I continued to work in the shared services domain and had the opportunity to review more solution designs, I had an epiphany. Most of the designs I was seeing used SOA products (usually an ESB) or were implemented as Web Services, yet I could see they were still tightly-coupled at the level of the application design, i.e., the data. Also, it was very common for solution designers to use the wrong tool for the job, simply because it was the one they were most familiar with. They even seemed to lack a conceptual ability to tell which tool would be right for a given requirement.

With that epiphany, I revisited my understanding of SOA. I realised that solution architects needed to be educated to produce SOA-compliant application designs, otherwise all the investment made by their organisations in SOA tool suites would be a waste. Worse still, SOA itself would be unfairly blamed for the waste of resources, when it in fact remains the best hope to reduce waste, improve business agility and reduce operational risk.

I've been tossing this idea around in my head for at least a couple of years now, the idea that a lightweight method is required to get solution architects up to speed with the required concepts quickly. Unfortunately, most solution architects would bristle if it was suggested to them that they don't really understand SOA. "Can't you see we're using an ESB?" would be the defensive response. That the response is a non sequitur would be lost on them. One can use an ESB and still come up with a design that is not SOA-compliant. How can we educate solution architects when they don't know what they don't know?

Fortuitously, I had a chat about this in August this year with Sanjiva Weerawarana, the CEO of the innovative Open Source middleware company, WSO2. Our needs meshed perfectly. WSO2 has a full suite of middleware products based on SOA concepts and Web Service standards. They are compact and not bloated, fairly straightforward to install and use, fully Open Source under the Apache Software Licence, and for which WSO2 offers a very attractively priced support model as well as other professional services. For such an innovative range of value-for-money products, the level of awareness in the customer community has been surprisingly low. Sanjiva has been trying to raise the level of awareness in the industry about his company's products for some time now. For too long WSO2's pitch had been aimed at developers (techies talking to techies), but for a real breakthrough, they needed to target decision-makers and decision-influencers. They were looking for a way to reach the solution architect with a compelling message.

And here I was, trying to educate the same solution architect about SOA using a new, lightweight approach. So Sanjiva and I came to an understanding. I would do a paid consulting assignment with WSO2 for a few months and turn out a few white papers to present their offerings to an audience that was higher up the corporate food chain than the developers. In return (in addition to helping me pay the bills), they would provide me a vehicle to popularise some of my ideas on SOA, especially the lightweight methodology I came to call "Practical SOA". I guess this approach is the good cop to Jeff Bezos's bad cop :-).

The first of those white papers ("Practical SOA for the Solution Architect") has now been completed and is available on WSO2's website. It's my audacious hope that a Solution Architect can read it in half an hour and be immediately effective on their project thanks to a simpler and more powerful mental model of SOA. A short summary of the paper is available for you to skim through, but I would encourage you to download the full paper (a free registration is required), since it has much more detailed descriptions, extensive explanations for the final conclusions and a couple of industry examples to drive home the concepts. So please have a read and, if you like it, recommend it to all your architect- and designer-type friends. (At my own request, my name doesn't appear on this document because I don't want to dilute the appeal of the method by causing it to look like a mere individual's opinion. WSO2's cachet is better than mine!)

A second white paper that is currently in the works will describe the full suite of WSO2's products and how they map to the framework established in the first. Stay tuned for that too. The first white paper will equip you with concepts. The second will equip you with know-how about a comprehensive set of reasonably-priced tools. Together, they should provide a customer organisation with excellent value for money and the long sought-for return on their investment in SOA.

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