An inside look at IBM's SOA plans

In this first of a two-part column we'll take a look at IBM's plans. In the next, we'll look at what those plans might mean for the future of enterprise computing.

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Individual Web services by themselves may be useful, but unless an entire enterprise can incorporate them into its overall IT infrastructure, they won't be revolutionary.

But if those Web services are rolled into a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), an enterprise can be transformed -- not just its computing architecture, but the entire way it does business.

That's the promise, in any event. And there are a lot of believers in it, most notably IBM. Big Blue has recently made a number of moves concerning SOAs that show the company believes SOAs are central to its future. What are IBM's plans for SOAs?

In this first of a two-part column we'll take a look at IBM's plans. In the next, we'll look at what those plans might mean for the future of enterprise computing.

Before we begin, here's a brief refresher course in SOAs. In an SOA, software components can be exposed as services on the network, and can be continually re-used for different applications and purposes. With an SOA, developing new applications can be a matter of mix-and-match: decide on the application that you need, find out the existing components that can help build that application, glue them all together and you're done.

The business benefits
IBM has launched a two-pronged approach towards SOAs. With IBM Global Services, it will help customers understand, build and deploy SOAs. With software, notably WebSphere Business Integration Server Foundation, it will provide the tools necessary to build those SOAs.

SOAs are important enough to IBM that it rolled out a major series of integrated announcements around them in late April. In fact, IBM explicitly ties SOAs to its on-demand architecture, on which it is essentially betting the future of the company.

According to Michael Liebow, Vice President of Services for IBM Global Services, it's pure business needs, not technology that's driving the SOA push.

"In talking with enterprises, we find that the need to drive business growth is paramount," he says. "There's a level of frustration with IT systems not supporting the needs of businesses to move nimbly to respond to ever-changing market conditions. And that's what's driving our focus on SOAs."

He notes that the SOA concept "has been around since the 1980s with object-oriented programming," but that with the maturing of Web services standards, it is now possible to create truly usable SOAs.

To illustrate the immediate benefits that SOAs can offer, Liebow points to an IBM experience with building a Web service. IBM wanted to make its order flow with its partners more efficient and to reduce error rates, so it built a multimillion dollar configuration engine that business partners can use to check their latest orders. It built the application and made it accessible via the Web. But because it was a "passive" application -- business partners had to actively decide to visit the Web site to use it -- uptake was minimal and only about 5% of orders went through the engine.

So IBM spent $50,000, a tiny fraction of the cost of the original implementation and exposed the application as a Web service, so that it could be embedded directly within partners' business applications. The upshot? Some 95% of orders now go through the application and error rates have been reduced to under 1%.

Take that one example and multiply it many-fold and you can see the immense benefits that SOAs can hold, Liebow says.

The IBM vision
So what's the IBM vision for implementing SOAs? It's really rather straightforward. First is the toolset for creating them. At the core is the WebSphere Business Integration Server Foundation, a J2EE run-time integration server with support for Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), a specification that executes business logic. Also part of the suite is Tivoli infrastructure management and security software.

Because SOA as a concept is still a relatively new one to many people, IBM has embarked on an educational effort as well. So it will publish new IBM Red Books (detailed, hands-on technology guides) on SOAs and Web services

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, IBM Global Services has launched a series of new services designed to help companies build SOAs and get the most out of them. The IBM Global Services IBM Assessment for Service Oriented Architecture Architectures, for example, helps companies get started on designing SOAs by identifying the business and technology capabilities the companies need to use service-oriented computing. It takes a customer through the process of planning, designing and implementing an SOA.

IBM's Strategy and Planning for Service Oriented Architectures is targeted at companies who have already planned an SOA. IBM will assess existing plans for an SOA from both functional and technical angles.

How about tomorrow?
When it comes to SOAs, IBM is well ahead of its customers and the market. Companies are barely beginning to use Web services and an SOA is a major step beyond that. So how long might it be before SOAs become common, in the IBM view?

Liebow says that the telecommunications, travel and financial services industries are ahead of most other firms when it comes to implementing SOAs. That's because, "they're service businesses and they have an absolute need to connect, and often have latency problems. It's not enough that they focus on efficiency. They have to focus on removing latency and speeding the flow of information."

At this point, he says, some firms have embarked on home-grown SOA solutions; he likens it to e-commerce in the mid 1970s, when people were home-growing their own code. That will change, he says, as people begin to accept Web services standards and SOAs will increasingly be built on top of Web services standards.

He expects that most companies will migrate to SOAs over the next several years as Web services standards mature and as companies recognize the benefits of SOAs. By 2006, he believes, the standards will be fully mature and in place and at that point, SOA use will become widespread.


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About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.



This was first published in June 2004

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