A good service

There's a lot of excitement over service-oriented architectures (SOAs) and rightly so. Terry Riches looks at the reasons why so many companies are adopting them and explains why many more should take the plunge.

People often ask why are businesses adopting SOAs? Well, the short answer is that they promise three things that businesses desire from their IT infrastructure, namely:

  • increased business agility
  • faster time to market
  • lower costs by re-using what you already have.

New IT strategies – both in the applications and infrastructure layers – are needed because the business environment is changing.

The growing effects of global competition and the increasing speed of change mean that all types of business need to become more agile – that is, able to react more quickly to change – while also complying with regulatory demands and improving their management and use of business information.

At the same time to stay competitive they have to continually work to improve productivity and lower costs.

Neil Ward-Dutton and Neil Macehiter, writing in late 2005, comment 'Improving IT-business alignment requires an evolution both in technology and technology thinking, which makes it easier for organisations to more effectively exploit their existing IT assets; and re-prioritise IT investment, delivery and strategy so that IT assets can be more readily directed to deal with business change.'

Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) have arisen as a response to these requirements. The aim is to make IT systems more responsive to ever-changing business requirements and to do so at a lower cost than traditional approaches.

Cost reduction is key. IBM recently surveyed its customers that had implemented a SOA and found that around 92 per cent of respondents had started a SOA initiative in order to reduce costs, with 51 per cent saying that they had actually realised cost savings.

It must be emphasised that although there's a lot of hype surrounding SOAs, real-life implementations suggest that this approach delivers tangible benefits to the enterprise.

While the initial interest in an SOA implementation may very well be to save money, experience shows that more important benefits are delivered including improved agility, better alignment of the business and IT, user adoption and support for business innovation.

So what is an SOA?

While there are multiple informal definitions of SOAs, there is only one formal definition.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) defines SOA as: 'A paradigm for organizing and utilizing distributed capabilities that may be under the control of different ownership domains. It provides a uniform means to offer, discover, interact with and use capabilities to produce desired effects consistent with measurable preconditions and expectations.'

Analysys Research's Teresa Cottam offers a simpler definition of an SOA as 'an integration architecture that views applications and information as services that can used to create new, flexible business processes.'

In other words, an SOA is a software architecture that defines the use of loosely-coupled software services to support the requirements of business processes and application users. An SOA sees applications as building blocks for services provided to end users.

This enables reuse of applications across the enterprise; in contrast to the approach of continually implementing new applications in a stove-pipe fashion to support individual services.

The most commonly-used components of an SOA are technologies such as web services, portal frameworks, application servers, integration frameworks and security frameworks.

Traditionally, applications have often been delivered piecemeal, paid for out of departmental budgets. This results in higher total cost of ownership (TCO) for the company as a whole – pushing up IT costs while not delivering optimal results for the business.

The desire to reduce costs by re-using what an enterprise already has, and also increase flexibility by reducing the time to implement a new service, has led enterprises to adopt SOAs, which is basically a new approach to deploying and integrating applications.

SOAs enable re-use of assets in the applications layer and enable quicker and easier integration (thereby reducing the so-called 'integration tax'). Overall they can increase flexibility and the speed of deployment while also reducing the cost of deployment through consolidation, reuse and lower integration costs.

Using SOAs in the real world

AMR Research conducted a survey of 134 enterprises in 2005, which found that 44 per cent of early SOA adopters were concentrating on internal business processes. The most common projects were application integration and IT help desk.

Comunica has already implemented a re-usable service-oriented architecture in response to the needs of its large enterprise customers.

The driver to designing our SOA was a project initiated by a large corporate customer who wanted to exploit the power of their Intelligent Infrastructure Management (IIM) investment. There has long been a recognition that IIM applications should be integrated with a client's service desk application.

The practical barriers though were the sheer number of applications, their tendency to be customised and keeping track with version releases.

In addition to this, a service ticket that relates to an IT issue will more than likely be passed to a team who are not using the same service desk application interface, which means that the integration complexity is doubled.  The opportunity in this case was to:

  1. provide the service desk with access to additional information about the state of the user's IT environment
  2. contextualise this in a no-nonsense way that would assist the fault process
  3. as a minimum, reduce the call time by an average of one minute – thereby recovering two minutes of productivity.

The level of automation achieved means that when an end user calls the helpdesk, the call handler  can quickly identify who is calling and, using the information gathered from the intelligent infrastructure management system, see all the devices associated with this person, where they are and what their current functional state is.

This speeds up resolution since the end user does not have to explain who they are or what the problem is. The client was able to exceed its goal of cutting one minute per call to the service desk, which when multiplied across the whole site equated to a saving of over 3,000 minutes per month.

Terry Riches is a senior business manager for Support & Intelligent Infrastructures for Comunica Limited.

January 2007