Using SOA as a competitive weapon

Enterprise software For manufacturers and retailers, the value of service oriented architecture may lie in business process management based on existing ERP systems

The major platform and applications providers have been hyping the benefits of service oriented architecture (SOA) for several years, but most manufacturing firms and retailers say, "SOA what?"

Unlike most of the SOA pioneers cited as references by the main suppliers, these businesses, interested in exploiting that investment and not developing custom software, have built an IT landscape around a major ERP suite, such as Oracle E-Business or SAP.

For these companies, the value of SOA will be found in business process management (BPM), which promises to allow companies to create unique and differentiating business processes on top of the same software many of their competitors use.

Companies can and should pilot SOA and BPM tools to gain experience. Depending on your chosen supplier, you might want to wait until the tools and services mature over the next 18 to 24 months before committing to intensive development on mission-critical processes.

You may find that it takes more effort than expected, and you may need to rework the application to work with the next version of the platform. In any case, companies should begin their effort with small pilot projects in order to better understand the potential of the technology and its process and organisational impacts.

Few who have studied SOA and BPM to any degree believe that business analysts will be able to sit down and imagine a new business process, sketch it out, and push a button to put it into production. A whole range of skills is needed for different parts of the problem.

These different skills need different tools and representations of the process and underlying services. A key issue is minimising the number of people and length of time needed to develop and change applications to implement a business process. Achieving this helps realise the core promise of SOA and BPM: greater business process agility.

SOA by definition needs services. Most BPM schemes try to approach the elusive goal of codeless development by moving complexity from within the application into the services infrastructure: the SOA part of the system. If the services are available, stitching them together to form a new or changed business process is relatively quick and straightforward.

However, the right services are often not available. The biggest variables in development time and complexity are in making new services available that implement the business analyst's intent. A good toolset provides the right level of interfaces for business analysts, service architects, service developers and systems managers, while allowing them to collaborate closely to create and improve the automated business process.

Whether or not it is their primary choice, Oracle and SAP users will need to use some of their ERP supplier's SOA framework for customisation and integration of their applications. The question will be whether they introduce one of the other supplier's frameworks into their environment as the primary foundation of their SOA and BPM strategy.

The most likely candidates to use something besides their ERP supplier's framework are companies that already have a significant deployment of another supplier's technology. For example, SAP customers who have been using Webmethods for integration and B2B e-business may not select SAP as the primary platform. Moving to Webmethods' BPM tools would have a lower learning curve and they currently offer a more integrated development environment.

Companies that use ERP purely for back-office functions and have other suppliers, or custom applications for customer-facing functions, also may not choose the ERP supplier's platform. If IBM, Tibco or BEA Systems is already widely deployed for website development, integration or software development, it may be easier to extend that investment for BPM.

Companies may see SOA and BPM in their future, but the ramp-up time to apply these technologies is long. Laggards will find that one morning their competitors who use the exact same ERP software are suddenly zooming ahead, shortening lead times, introducing products more quickly, and reacting faster to changing market conditions.

IT groups that hope to respond to the market faster need to start making decisions, setting a strategy, and building the skills to apply SOA and BPM as a competitive weapon.

● Ian Finley, research director at AMR Research, contributed to this article

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