The Future Begins Now

Professor von Ammon, what exactly is a service-oriented architecture (SOA)?

The basic idea is that a vast range of services, that is to say, software-based solutions for specific problems, already exist, both in your own company and more particularly globally, and these can be used in other applications, business processes, or contexts. All you need to do is program a kind of application shell which links via standardized interfaces into other services located within your company or globally.

On the face of it, this is nothing new, since software manufacturers anticipated this development in the form of component platforms at the beginning of the 1990s. However, while these enabled components or services to be called within a platform and communicate with one another, there was no cross-platform capability.

What is so new about service-oriented architectures?

The challenge for companies in the face of international competition is to be able to integrate a wide range of software solutions, be it internally within the company or in connection with suppliers and customers. This type of service-oriented architecture can be realized today via standardized web-service technologies such as UDDI, WSDL, or SOAP.

A company simply has to select which software solution is appropriate for a specific SOA. The decision will be based on many different factors, including performance, which takes in efficiency, reaction speed, response behavior, and scalability, i.e. behavior under increasing load, such as simultaneous users of a system on the Internet, and also security issues, transaction management and many others. SAP’s SAP NetWeaver and its individual components provide an open, scalable, secure, and future-proof platform.

What are the advantages in terms of time and cost savings for companies that use an SOA?

One of the most important factors is the enormous flexibility that can be achieved with this architecture. This is true initially for orchestrating the services, that is to say, setting the sequence in which they are called within a business process. Business processes can be modified at runtime and services changed, exchanged, or augmented. Loosely coupled business processes between business partners can be linked. From a software point of view, loosely coupled also means of course not being chained to one or more business partners at any cost.

A further advantage is that ready-made services are usually tried-and-tested and quality-assured. In this way, companies can construct highly complex systems within a very short time from pre-existing components. The cost benefits will be particularly interesting to midmarket companies in future. Also, the market for such services is constantly expanding. For instance, companies can select the service that is right for them from the Yellow Pages of a UDDI node. Compared to the expense of developing and maintaining a service yourself, the costs of procuring and licensing a service are extremely transparent.

Can you describe this using a concrete business process from a specific industry?

I can give you two examples, one B2C, the other B2B. Example one: Users can apply for a loan via a B2C portal. In reality, this calls the online portal of a bank. In the course of the loan application process, the applicant’s creditworthiness is checked using the services of a credit-checking agency etc. An application such as this involves the user calling a whole cascade of services at various levels. These run in the background and are invisible to the user, who just sees the end result – the loan is either approved or it is not.

Example two: A manufacturing company that for instance uses a comprehensive SAP R/3 landscape and a production control unit, mainframe, and various other systems can consolidate everything into a meaningful uniform portal structure under this concept. This reduces the number of interfaces and improves existing standard functions, such as those from the SAP R/3 system. IT landscapes that have developed over time are thus streamlined, and a future-proof IT architecture is created into which new customer or supplier systems can be seamlessly integrated, for example.

That sounds highly complex. Will switching to an architecture of inter-communicating services also benefit midmarket companies that operate globally in the mid term?

Yes, of course, because midmarket companies also, or perhaps in particular, have the problem of non-integrated or “hard-wired” individual software packages that result in software architectures that are difficult to maintain. SOAs are not about developing new applications, but harmonizing existing software landscapes. In this context it is irrelevant whether midmarket companies operate globally or regionally. The decisive factor is that that they can integrate globally available services into their processes and no longer have to develop and maintain these services themselves. Midmarket companies in particular are subject to severe cost pressures and nowadays can hardly afford in-house development due to their generally restricted budgets and understaffed IT departments, let alone keep pace with new development tendencies.

SOAs are often (and sometimes exclusively) linked with web services. Can an SOA also be implemented with other technologies?

The SOA concept is more than “just” web services. It is a technology-independent and cross-application integration architecture. SOA contains platform-independent standards. In terms of simple interoperability, web services standards such as the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) or SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) play an important, but not exclusive, role. Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) can be used for more complex processes. Further, any SOA must support Internet protocols such as HTTP, HTTPS, and SMTP, as well as XML.

I could list a host of other standards. The main point is that these standards make companies’ lives much easier in IT terms as they link different systems and thus also business worlds. The result is more efficient processes, greater productivity, and increased flexibility. This is how midmarket companies today are already shaping the future.

Dr. Andreas Schaffry
Dr. Andreas Schaffry