SOA: Enabling the long tail of IT

In this Zapflash, Ronald Schmelzer discusses the combination of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 in relation to the economic change of IT.

The forty-year history of IT has followed a pendulum, swinging from centralized computing (mainframe timesharing),

to decentralized (client/server), and back to centralized (Web/n-tier architectures with thin browser clients). Now the pendulum is swinging back to decentralized IT, with the emergence of advanced, collaborative, and richly interactive applications under the banners of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0, making possible a dizzying array of new business opportunities and technologies that catch the fancy of entrepreneurs, developers, and dreamers everywhere. While the first decade or so of the Web, not even casually referred to as Web 1.0, continues to have a significant impact on the way that companies run their business and make money, it doesn't threaten the current power or structure of the IT organization as much as the newer movement to SOA and Web 2.0 have the potential to do.

The swing back to decentralization encouraged by service orientation in combination with the Web 2.0 movement does not sit well with the current structure of the enterprise IT organization because it fundamentally shifts the center of power and responsibility from the IT department to buiness units and individuals. Just as the PC revolution and the rise of client/server led to enormous support headaches and a siloed organizational structure, the thought of distributing the powerful collaborative capabilities today's technology enables strikes fear in the heart of many an IT admin and executive alike.

Furthermore, the way that the IT organization is currently structured results in an enterprise that only invests in building the applications that the company as a whole cares most about, allocating their precious dollars and resources squeezed into the so-called discretionary part of the IT budget to new application development. However, this reality leaves the hard fact that many business departments simply can't get their IT needs met, because the IT organization is too busy building the IT application "best sellers" to spend the time and money to deal with the niche interests of just a few users in the business. But today, the combination of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 – the combination that some people are calling Enterprise Web 2.0, promises to fundamentally change these economic realities of IT.

Catering to masses of niches with SOA

In a world where IT consists of disparate silos, each requiring separate integration activities and discrete projects, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But, in a world in which IT is responsible for creating an ecosystem that supports loosely-coupled, composable, and reusable IT capabilities that disparate users can easily consume and compose into a wide array of new applications, this economic reality has shifted to the principle of the Long Tail.

The Long Tail, a term first coined and popularized by Chris Anderson, refers to the economic phenomenon where products that are of interest to only small communities, and thus result in low demand and low sales volume, can collectively result in a large aggregate market. This large collection of small markets can significantly exceed the more traditional market that the most popular and high volume sales items can generate. For example, Amazon.com generates more business in aggregate from its millions of books that each only sell a few copies than they do from the top 100 best sellers that might each sell tens of thousands of units.

One quick way of summing up the Long Tail is by saying that there's more opportunity in catering to a mass of niche markets than a niche of mass markets. Large enterprises in particular are composed of masses of such niches, operating in different geographies and business units, catering to specific demographics with tailored solutions to meet the needs of all constituents. And yet, the centralized IT organization that serves the needs of the entire organization is typically woefully unprepared to serve these masses of niches: large numbers of users with widely varying IT needs. How, then, can IT support the needs shared in common with all the business groups without overextending its centralized resource to meet the specific needs of each of the individual groups?

The answer lies in the power of SOA. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of SOA is that it fundamentally shifts the responsibility for application development away from the centralized IT organization to the diverse groups within the business. Instead of catering to a niche of masses, in which only the generalized needs of the many are met, SOA enables the catering to the mass of niches, in which business units are empowered to meet their own application development needs. IT no longer is seen as the entity that builds applications on behalf of the business, but rather provides the infrastructure, architecture, and governance by which the business units can meet their own needs. Developers within IT should no longer develop applications as discrete code that they must integrate at a later point in time. Instead, properly implemented SOA enables the composition of loosely-coupled Services described in metadata into Service-Oriented Business Applications (SOBAs) that implement business processes. It then becomes the responsibility of IT to manage such SOBAs in the context of a governance framework and associated infrastructure that enables continual, iterative change without disruption of the business.

User empowerment: The fundamental motivation for Enterprise Web 2.0

In a traditional IT environment where the costs of application development, management, and deployment are high, IT can only afford to meet the most critical and central business needs. As the pendulum in the enterprise swings to Web 2.0, however, IT must support an environment that empowers the user to build, budget, and manage their own applications independent of a central IT body. The emphasis is no longer on the central architecture or even a central infrastructure for shared services, but rather on the consumption side of the service equation, where enterprise users are welcome to compose functionality from existing systems as enterprise mashups in which business logic is no longer centralized within core IT systems, but rather distributed to service consumption endpoints. The sort of enterprise mashups that businesses require combine rich interface capabilities with SOBAs that enable not only the use, but also the creation and configuration of the SOBAs themselves.

What's required to enable this sort of user empowerment is not just technology, but a change in the way that organizations go about budgeting, managing, developing, deploying, and even organizing their IT organizations and applications. In fact, the only way in which to truly enable user empowerment such that the Long Tail of IT applications is made a reality is for IT to provide an architecture, infrastructure, and governance framework that enables the Enterprise Web 2.0 vision of SOBAs. Instead of catering to a niche of masses, in which only the generalized needs of the many are met, a service-oriented, Enterprise Web 2.0 approach to IT application development supports the mass of niches, in which business units are empowered to meet their own application development needs. IT no longer is seen as the entity that builds applications on behalf of the business, but rather provides the infrastructure, architecture, and governance by which the business units can meet their own needs.

The ZapThink take

Where the Long Tail works, minority business needs are catered to, and organizations consequently get greater value. A Long Tail model for IT may lead to improvement in a business' overall ability to meet the needs of its customers and business units, and thus the overall value of the business. However, aficionados of the Long Tail concept will point out that the mechanism that determines whether or not an organization can effectively take advantage of masses of niches is a low cost both of inventory and the distribution of goods. After all, it can only be viable to offer millions of products if the incremental cost of adding, selling, and distributing a new product is vanishingly small. Similarly, only in an environment where the cost of creation, maintenance, and deployment of individual SOBAs is minimal can a business effectively enable the Long Tail IT application development.

And yet, organizations are still investing in enterprise software and middleware solutions that serve to only keep application costs significantly high, their application management brittle and inflexible, and the deployment of applications long, cumbersome, and expensive. Such organizations will never be able to realize the user empowerment benefits of Enterprise Web 2.0. The radical change in IT that SOA and the Enterprise Web 2.0 vision promise is not simply the use of standards to expose system functionality, but rather in how the business conceives of and uses IT, and as a result, companies will have to undergo significant organizational and infrastructural changes to take advantage of the promise of Service Orientation and Enterprise Web 2.0.


This was first published in September 2006

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