"Gettin' Small"

By Charles Stack

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Old school business applications are big, they're clunky, and when they go down, they go down hard. That's why service-orientated architecture (SOA) is all about getting small.

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It's about breaking big, monolithic enterprise applications down into a dynamic matrix of discreet, distributed services that can be mixed and matched on the fly to suit changing business needs. But preserving that kind of agility takes a new approach to governance, one that understands how all the SOA pieces fit together in the nimble new enterprise.

There was a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, when the environment could accommodate and support gigantic reptiles. That environment changed. The dinosaurs died. Ants didn’t.

A similarly cataclysmic change continues to reshape the global business environment. The extraordinary evolution of the Web has changed how businesses relate to that environment, and to customers, partners, competitors as it redefines the enterprise. That the pace of this change continues to accelerate poses an increasingly significant threat to any company with too much in common with the doomed dinosaur—better to be more like a swarm of tenacious ants. Better to get small.

The widespread interest in and adoption of SOA is an attempt to do just that, to avoid the dinosaurs’ fate by getting small. But it’s not about shrinking or downsizing.

Companies around the globe are taking steps to deconstruct the brittle, monolithic applications, which constitutes the fossilized backbone of the typical IT infrastructure. These companies are attempting to replace that backbone with a network of loosely coupled services. Services that can easily be composed into a new breed of highly adaptable applications that can thrive amid tectonic shifts in the business landscape.

But winning big by getting SOA-small takes a thorough understanding of the difference between controlling a lumbering thunder-lizard of an infrastructure versus controlling a teeming swarm of services. Controlling, directing and maintaining all the moving parts in a highly dynamic SOA environment takes a new approach to governance.

It’s All About Relationships

The first thing to understand is effective SOA governance is not a problem to be solved by purely technological means. It requires a coordinated mix of people, process, and technology, and it must address the entire SOA lifecycle. Never lose sight of the fact that in SOA people, processes, and technologies are part of the swarm.

The next thing—and this one is critical—is the ability to see, understand, and manage the relationships and interdependencies that connect services and other software assets to each other, to the policies and standards that determine their design, development, and use, and to the composite applications in which services are consumed.

These relationships and interdependencies define the SOA, and governance holds everything together, organizing the swarm to keep it moving toward its objective. This takes a clear understanding of the SOA at both a macro and micro level. Macro governance is about the swarm. Micro governance is about the ants. Together they encompass the entire SOA lifecycle.

The Swarm and The Ants

At the macro level, this means understanding the overall goals of the SOA within the context of corporate business objectives. Typically, these goals are better business/IT alignment, an increased capacity for innovation, and maximum business agility. Macro-level governance must reflect those goals, guiding project and service investment decisions.

Macro-level governance then feeds governance at the micro level, where governance must determine when, where, how and by whom services will be produced and consumed. Governance must then set, monitor, and enforce the performance requirements those services are expected to meet once they enter the service network.

Effective SOA governance touches everyone and everything in the swarm, and reaches down to the smallest components of the SOA. This involves the creation and application of the appropriate policies and standards to the software assets—services and everything else—in the enterprise portfolio.

Specific standards- and policy-compliant software assets can then be prescribed, during the project planning stage, for use in the development of services. Those services can then be similarly prescribed for use in the creation of composite applications. Governance is embedded in the original software assets, then passed on to the service, and through that service into the composite application.

Once a service is deployed in the operational environment a different set of standards and policies must be applied to maintain control over the SOA. Defining and enforcing standards and policies to ensure service availability, access, and performance instills trust in the available services. That trust increases reuse, further improving the SOA’s bottom-line benefits.

Adding It Up

Measuring and reporting those benefits at the micro level is an important aspect of SOA lifecycle governance. Each instance of reuse of an individual service is money saved. That value, when recorded and reported, provides vital feedback to guide IT investment and project planning decisions. It also provides information that can inform the ongoing adjustment of standards and policies to insure the SOA remains in absolute alignment with business needs.

SOA lifecycle governance, injected at the micro level into the basic building blocks of the SOA, delivers macro-level benefits that help to inoculate the SOA against service interruptions that can threaten business-critical applications. The collection of information on service performance and other production metrics is equally important in assessing and communicating the business value of the SOA.

This information adds even greater detail to the feedback that is essential for fine-tuning governance efforts to insure that the SOA evolves in lock step with business objectives.

Services and other software assets are to the SOA what individual ants are to the swarm. Visibility, control, and traceability of all of these assets are essential for effective SOA governance and the ultimate success of the SOA. The ability to see, understand, and control the individual elements of the SOA and how they relate to one another is key to ensuring those assets behave like the ants in a highly coordinated swarm.

Each has a clear individual purpose serving the greater good and preserves the swarm’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment that have already proven fatal to creatures that, by virtue of their great size and inflexibility, are incapable of avoiding extinction.

As Vice President of Engineering at BEA Systems Charles Stack has been managing software development for over 20 years, with more than a decade of experience managing the development of online systems. He was the founder and CEO of Flashline, which was acquired by BEA in 2006 and he is credited with founding the first Internet retail store, Books.com.