Cloud computing: Reincarnated SOA?

Even if you recall the failed entry of service-oriented architecture on the scene a decade ago, don’t write it off today. With cloud computing, SOA’s approach to legacy systems may bring app store-like success.

Do you remember service-oriented architecture? In the early 2000s, SOA was going to change the world by finally freeing IT from the stovepipes of corporate computing. Instead of building dedicated applications, SOA would enable system architects to create components of software to mimic specific business processes. This software-based Lego could build business processes on the fly.

Then SOA crashed and burned. In the mid to late 2000s, headlines such as “One out of seven SOA efforts have already failed” and “RIP SOA” began to appear, because SOA can be technologically difficult.

What’s old becomes new again
But now, thanks to cloud computing, people hope to revisit the benefits of SOA. Data centres have long grappled with legacy hardware and software that doesn't like talking to other equipment. But cloud-based architectures help break down the barriers of legacy systems through virtualised physical resources.

Cloud computing enables IT departments to dynamically allocate resources as needed, effectively lumping all computing resources into a single bucket and making them available to whoever needs them. That enables service-oriented code.

In the past, building a new application or service required provisioning a new physical box with dedicated storage. But that's no longer the case with virtualised infrastructure. A developer can ask an administrator to spark up a virtual machine and allocate a gigabyte or two. So SOA bolts together new applications and using a variety of services becomes more tractable. That said, anyone trying to sell SOA will probably want to call it something else to disassociate from the stigma.

An app store for enterprises
What might we call this new brand of SOA and how might it manifest itself? Jürgen Kress, founder of the Oracle EMEA SOA Partner Community and the global Oracle SOA Partner Advisory Council, has an idea. Enter the enterprise app store, where business managers get to choose computing services from an online catalogue in a grown-up version of iTunes.

"You have all the business objects and services, and all of the integrations and APIs [application programming interfaces] stored in a central place, like a Google Apps store for your whole company," Hess said at the recent International SOA Symposium. "In an app store, it's easier to pick it and use it again."

Companies are already trying to revive the concept of SOA, albeit without using that term. Mark Sylvester, global CTO at Fujitsu, outlines the company's four-stage computing strategy.

The first stage of Fujitsu's cloud strategy takes the customer's existing, fragmented computing architecture and simply replicates it in a private cloud. Then, the firm moves to an application migration and rationalisation phase before recasting those applications as subscription services that mirror business processes. Finally, these services will be made available in local marketplaces, either inside or potentially outside the firewall stop. “It is almost a business activity exchange, if you like," Sylvester said.

But there are still significant challenges to overcome. One of SOA’s biggest stumbling blocks was political rather than technical. In the best of times, companies are politically charged, and server-hugging users are often unwilling to share their assets. Encouraging them to reuse broadly available corporate code may be harder than technocrats think. On the technical side, companies have to develop common enterprise object and process models, so that when one department updates a user record, another understands what that means at a technical level and agrees. This type of standardisation is notoriously difficult. It requires strong leadership when many CIOs are struggling to become more strategic.

Done well, a variety of enterprise app stores -- similar to those for iPhones and Droids -- could pop up. Line-of-business departments get to choose the services that they want and bolt them together. Several OS makers have already hopped on the app train. Apple’s OS X, for example, features a built-in app store, and the soon-to-be-unveiled Windows 8 is rumoured to include one as well. And of course, the cloud giant Google is on the app store trail, with offerings in its Chrome browser and forthcoming Chrome OS.

But just because Google does it, it’s not a done deal. Even when technical barriers are removed, those pesky human ones always get in the way.

Danny Bradbury is a freelance journalist specialising in technology, business, and environmental writing and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.

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