"What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
The classic Strother Martin line from "Cool Hand Luke" might sum up analysts views as to why so few people outside Microsoft can understand what the software giant is talking about when it talks about service-oriented architecture (SOA).
Views differ as to whether Microsoft knows what it is doing with SOA, but doesn't know how to communicate it, or whether it doesn't really know what it is doing with SOA and is communicating what it doesn't know. A third view might be that Microsoft is making a hash of both SOA and its communications.
Analysts asked about Microsoft's SOA strategy for this article offered views in these three categories, although there are shades of gray. However, even the analysts who strongly support Microsoft's approach to SOA, see problems with the way the company explains its service-oriented strategy.
While complaints that the Redmond, Wash.-software giant is pursuing MOA, or Microsoft-oriented architecture, are not new, Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst of ZapThink LLC., sparked the most recent debate last week with an opinion article, "The inadequacy of Microsoft's SOA message".
In an interview after that piece was published, Schmelzer said ZapThink has been trying for months to tell Microsoft that it needs to improve its SOA focus. Far from being "Microsoft haters," he said the ZapThink analysts believe Microsoft has technology potential, but isn't making the most of it.
"Microsoft could be so much more," Schmelzer said, including building on its desktop dominance to "become the ultimate composition platform" for services. The problem, as he sees it, is that Microsoft still hasn't figured out how to move into the heterogeneous Web 2.0 world.
"They haven't figured out how to capitalize on Web 2.0," Schmelzer said. "They haven't figured out how to capitalize on Software as a Service (SaaS). They haven't figured out how to capitalize on open source. We've been giving them this opinion for the past nine months. The question is what are they going to do about it."
Dana Gardner, principal analyst of Interarbor Solutions LLC., agrees with Schmelzer and said Microsoft is not being proactive enough with SOA. Gardner said the company is mostly "dancing around SOA."
"Microsoft has had to do a dance around SOA," Gardner said, "adopting some of its principles, particularly around interoperability, but not around the core bedrock principle of heterogeneity."
Gardner said Microsoft has the "Roach Motel approach." to interoperability.
"Microsoft is open when it comes to other objects and formats coming into their environment, but the stuff doesn't go out nearly as easily," he said. "There isn't really heterogeneity in principle. It's strategy really still favors Microsoft trying to grow its footprint at the expense of the larger SOA ideals, which is that it shouldn't matter what goes in and what goes out. What should matter is the ease of creating business processes that can extend across multiple environments, data types, application silos, and formats."
Gardner said some of its SOA technology and marketing communications problems stem from the fact that it is a "confused company" as it transitions to its post-Bill Gates era. He held out hope that a new generation of management may help it focus better on the new SOA world.
"Microsoft needs to hit the reset button," Gardner said.
Good plan, poor communication
While acknowledging that Microsoft may have trouble communicating its strategy, Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, takes a positive view of the company's SOA strategy. He sees some of the communications problem stemming from Microsoft's reluctance to adopt the same marketing buzz words as major vendors.
"I think Microsoft is a victim of its strategy sometimes," Ward-Dutton said. Microsoft tends to release large numbers of products in waves, which he noted is hard for people to get their heads around. Another communications problem stems from the fact that sometimes Microsoft executives are not speaking the same language as their counterparts at other software vendors.
"The company has a habit of not really following industry buzzwords in the way that most of the other vendors do," Ward-Dutton said.
He noted that while the rest of the known software world was marketing 'application servers,' Microsoft eschewed the term to the point that it seemed unclear whether they had the technology.
"It was the same with EAI and ESBs, and it was the same with SOA more broadly," Ward-Dutton said.
But where Gardner said he is not sure Microsoft's Oslo modeling approach to SOA will work, Ward-Dutton sees Oslo as a positive initiative.
"If you look at what Microsoft has planned with Oslo - that is, a set of tools that work from design, through development, and then through deployment and operation, against one common software application model, which supports applications as sets of cooperating services – then – to us at least – that's pretty powerful," Ward-Dutton said. "It's particularly powerful because once you get past the simplistic side of SOA – that it's simply a way of building and integrating applications – you realize that to really deliver services that requires a consistent approach that pulls together across the whole software delivery lifecycle, which is exactly what Microsoft is doing."
SaaS and cloud-based services
As opposed to the view that Microsoft doesn't really get SaaS, Ward-Dutton sees value in the company's concept of Software + Services.
"What Microsoft is planning to do to link the Office applications, Sharepoint, and so on into cloud-based services," Ward-Dutton said. "Then look at how Microsoft is planning to stretch the Oslo model out beyond on-premise application delivery to delivery of cloud-based services, and we think you can see that Microsoft actually has this SOA thing sorted out pretty well."
Joe McKendrick, analyst and SOA blogger on ZDNet, while agreeing with some of the criticism, sees another possible strategy for Microsoft as a "disruptor," operating characteristically outside the traditional vendor landscape.
"I see Microsoft trying to play more of a disruptor role in SOA," McKendrick explained. "That is, Microsoft doesn't intend to go head-to-head with IBM or BEA/Oracle to compete for high-value projects. Rather, it is targeting the underserved market that hasn't had the budgets or resources for big-time SOA. This is usually small to medium businesses. Microsoft's traditional strategy has been to move into these underserved areas, build a foundation of business, and move up the enterprise from there."
Fuzzy product roadmap
What might be characterized as a middle view of the Microsoft SOA strategy is proposed by Chris Haddad, vice president of application platform strategies and data management strategies at Burton Group Inc.
Haddad agrees with Microsoft's stated strategic direction for what the vendor calls "Real World SOA," which involves in the vendor's words "making a new class of model-driven and service-enabled applications mainstream."
While other analysts may disagree, Haddad said, "At a vision level, Microsoft understands service-orientation, adoption challenges, and is focused on enabling pragmatic approach to achieve success."
But then up jumps the devil. Communication.
The Burton analyst argues that Microsoft needs to do more to articulate its strategy and move it forward.
Summarizing his view, Haddad said: "While Burton Group agrees with Microsoft's strategic statement, we feel Microsoft must invest more time to clearly articulate their view of SOA principles, how their product roadmap will be realigned to support service-orientation, and describe fundamental architectural service-oriented building blocks required to realize value."
This would go a long way toward quieting industry criticism of Microsoft's approach to SOA in the Burton analyst's opinion.
"Current industry dissatisfaction with Microsoft's SOA direction is due to a lack of communication," Haddad said. "To demonstrate progress towards their strategic vision, Microsoft must better communicate how Visual Studio and BizTalk Server will align with Microsoft's Oslo initiative. While Microsoft state development within the product lines will be 'business driven' and include 'next generation declarative languages', the message must also include 'software asset discovery and visualization,' integration of various 'service model perspectives,' and 'portfolio oriented process modeling.'"
Haddad is not without hope that this can be done.
"We look forward to Microsoft articulating a clear set of principles and a corresponding roadmap as they did with their prior ground breaking initiative, Indigo," he said, referring to the original code name for Windows Communication Foundation.
That may be coming in the fall when Microsoft holds its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. Burley Kawasaki, director of product management, Microsoft Connected Systems Division, said the Oslo approach to SOA will be made much clearer in presentations scheduled for that event.