SOAs Under the Microscope

The IT architecture of the future is service-oriented. In contrast to conventional system landscapes, which require complex adaptations whenever business processes change, Service-Oriented Architectures promise a high degree of flexibility, because the system functionality is encapsulated in independent services, which can be called up for certain processes. Thanks to this modularity, enterprises are able to modify existing services more easily and implement new ones more quickly.

Benefits, challenges, factors for success
Benefits, challenges, factors for success

This sounds convincing, but for many users – in particular for small and midsize enterprises – it is still a far-off dream. A study by Berlin analysts Berlecon Research, entitled “SOA in Practice – How Companies Apply SOA Successfully,” could give these companies the necessary motivation to seriously consider this topic and restructure their IT landscapes accordingly. Two results in the study are particularly persuasive: a Service-Oriented Architecture is relatively easy to implement from a technical perspective and offers enterprises considerable benefits. However, the study also goes into the challenges involved in SOA projects, namely the resistance to SOA from individual departments and the considerable additional costs in the initial phase.

Expectations fulfilled through and through

For the study, the analysts asked eight companies of different sizes and from different branches of industry about their experiences with the implementation of a SOA. The survey analyzed projects at a pharmaceuticals and drugs manufacturer, an energy provider, a steel and technology group, and four service providers from the areas of IT, financials, leasing, and logistics. Berlecon kept the companies’ experiences anonymous, because participants are known to be more forthcoming about the problems of SOA implementation in this case. Most users executed their projects in short periods of between three and nine months. The results were positive through and through: all projects fulfilled or even surpassed users’ expectations. All the companies reported significantly higher flexibility for their IT, and many are also saving costs for the operation, maintenance, and modification of their systems in line with new requirements. One financial service provider even cited savings of 20 million euros to date.
However, the reusability of the services in different application contexts, which can also contribute to cost savings, was not a key factor for most of the companies. Dr. Joachim Quartz, Associated Senior Analyst at Berlecon, thinks one possible reason for this could be “that the companies are just starting to use SOA, and reusability only becomes an obvious advantage after a few years.” But some companies are already reaping the benefits of reusability. One logistics service provider uses some services in up to 10 different applications, while an IT service provider uses most of its services 20 to 40 times, and is thus saving around 50 percent of its development costs.

SAP NetWeaver as SOA platform

Most of the companies cited a lack of flexibility in their IT as the reason for the projects, while others did not believe their existing system landscape enabled them to meet new requirements effectively. The companies either implemented a company-wide SOA or switch certain areas over to services.
Most of the eight enterprises chose SOA platforms from technology providers for technical implementation. Two chose SAP NetWeaver from SAP. Custom developments, on the other hand, are only in use in cases where implementation of a SOA was started very early on or in cases where a mature solution was not available on the market for the specific area in question. According to Berlecon, however, the proportion of custom-developed software for SOAs will fall as the functional scope of the available platforms grows.
As a rule, SOAs are achieved with the help of web services, with WSDL (Web Services Definition Language) as the standard for the interfaces and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) as the message standard. The users participating in the study explicitly selected the standards. They only used WSDL and SOAP where it was really needed, and otherwise often made use of other formats such as JMS (Java Message Service) or self-defined XML interfaces (Extensible Markup Language).

Good planning is half the battle

In the initial phase, in particular, the costs for an SOA project must not be underestimated. “Implementation presents management with greater challenges than most classic IT projects,” explains Dr. Joachim Quartz. “The main reason for this is that SOA demands the interaction between a lot of individual components. It is essential that this complexity is taken into consideration during planning.” Companies that want to implement Service-Oriented Architecture can learn from the project reports drawn up by the participating companies, and use the study’s advice as a guide.
One key factor for the success of an implementation is the careful weighing-up of the scope of the SOA. The question is whether the new architecture is to be implemented across the whole enterprise, or just in certain areas, because a suitable platform can only be selected if the company is clear on which applications are to be executed on the SOA. For enterprise-wide implementations, it is also advisable to start with the easiest projects first, and proceed step by step. Ideally, the first few projects should be easy to implement, offer significant benefits for the company, and be executed in user departments that have a positive attitude towards SOA. The study stresses that the success of these initial projects should help to overcome any resistance to SOA.

Expense for initial projects usually underestimated

In view of the additional expense for initial projects, enterprises are well advised to plan sufficient time and budget. Many of the companies interviewed reported that, in hindsight, the main difficulty they faced in their projects was a lack of sufficient enough resources for the initial phase. According to Berlecon, it is therefore necessary to bear in mind that the processes for achieving enterprise specifications for the SOA first need to be imported, and the specifications usually need to be adapted once more once the system has been used in day-to-day business. In addition, the developers and IT employees require training on the SOA platform. As a rule, the reusability of services is another factor that generates additional costs, as the services must be developed in such a way that they can be used not just for the concrete project but for other applications, too. Companies should realistically evaluate which services they are able to reuse, in order to avoid any unnecessary expense.
In practice, it has proven advantageous to set up a special SOA team to draw up and monitor the specifications for the SOA and support the individual projects. The team should included members of the user departments IT and have expertise in the area of software architectures. To overcome resistance to SOA in the individual departments, this team needs the backing of the executive board. Berlecon recommends a change management process to accompany the SOA measures in order to motivate employees and prepare them for the changes ahead.
For implementation itself, a step-by-step and above all pragmatic approach has been shown to pay off. The study reveals that it often makes sense to avoid implementing SOA in individual IT areas that do not need to be made more flexible. Enterprises should not force through an artificial splitting of these areas. As the experiences gathered in the projects show, with a pragmatic approach and careful planning, enterprises have the best possible chance of implementing a SOA smoothly and benefiting from the more flexible IT architecture.

Sabine Höfler