Software Brick by Brick

Maßgeschneiterte Software aus Bausteinen (Foto: Lego)
Customized Software like Lego Bricks (Foto: Lego)

SOA (service-oriented architecture) describes an approach to enterprise architecture in which reusable services are able to support a wide variety of business processes . SOA enables companies to remain flexible and save costs, because the application landscape can be developed further in a modular way, based on the existing software assets. SOA plays a particularly important strategic role when, for instance, a company wants to respond quickly to a competitive challenge, achieve short product launch cycles, or integrate a company it has acquired.

The SOA Innovation Lab is the first German user association for SOA and enterprise architecture. Its goal is to gather expertise to develop flexible IT landscapes. At the Innovation Lab, CIOs and chief architects from large organizations talk about their practical experiences and drive the development of SOA through projects. spoke with Dr. Johannes Helbig, CIO of Deutsche Post MAIL and initiator of the SOA Innovation Lab. What’s special about service-oriented architecture?

Helbig: With SOA, users can build new business processes by using existing services – it’s a bit like Lego. This gives you a completely new form of flexibility. I like to use as an analogy the platform approach from the automotive industry, where the same platform can be used to build cars as different as a Skoda Octavia and an Audi A3. How does SOA support the interaction of IT and business?

Helbig: SOA connects business processes with the IT application landscape: At the SOA description level, we talk about services that are expressed using business language – for example, customer, create, and order – but at the same time, the architecture maps these terms to the application landscape structure. This enables the world of IT to be addressed in business terms – and this breaks down the language barrier that is otherwise so typical between business and IT.

Dr. Johannes Helbig, CIO der Deutschen Post BRIEF (Foto: Deutsche Post)
Dr. Johannes Helbig, CIO of Deutsche Post BRIEF (photo: Deutsche Post) So, with SOA, does the business world also understand the IT world better, too?


Helbig: Yes, of course. For example, the business world can start linking different services together on its own to support a business process – without speaking the language of IT or even being familiar with the technology. This is precisely the type of creativity that we want to create on the business side. How can organizations benefit from SOA, and in which areas?

Helbig: The biggest benefit is the flexibility that SOA gives companies. It has been shown that traditionally evolved application landscapes often tend to hinder innovation rather than accelerate it. In contrast, SOA enables companies to support constantly changing business models, customer requirements, and processes as smoothly as possible. And there are many more advantages. Companies profit financially, because they avoid redundancy. They secure a high protection of investments, because they can reuse services in new contexts and avoid siloed solutions. And then there’s managed evolution. This means that companies don’t always need to build the entire application landscape from scratch, but can make changes in one place without impacting all the other components. This is possible because the applications are only loosely linked together through the services. As a result, companies can drive the development of their application landscape iteratively in small steps.

SOA is also good for data consistency. An application that, for example, requires customer master data doesn’t need to build the functionality again, but instead accesses the standardized service that’s available enterprise-wide. But SOA doesn’t mean companies aren’t obliged to ensure that their data is high quality.

Helbig: That’s quite right. There’s a great amount of work required for this “semantic” integration, as we call it. And this is the real challenge.

That’s why I like to use the equation: SOA = semantic integration + loose coupling + managed evolution. For SOA, millions of euros or dollars have to be invested up front. What arguments can you use to convince the CFO to free up funds for this investment?

Helbig: You can convert the advantages that I named into convincing business cases. However, I don’t believe that SOA requires advance investments of millions of euros or dollars. Using the evolutionary approach, companies can get acquainted with the topic of SOA without tackling any major hurdles at the start. As early as the first projects, they can often create value by developing better interfaces and avoiding redundancy. CIOs don’t need much baggage to embark on their SOA journey. So how much baggage is not much baggage?

Helbig: A CIO could, for example, sketch out an enterprise architecture with its domains as the goal, but initially focus only on projects that need to be tackled anyway. The CIO can then design these projects so that they fit into the planned final SOA architecture. An open source integration infrastructure also lowers the threshold for getting started with SOA. How can companies benefit from being a member of the SOA Innovation Lab?

Helbig: They become part of one the first – and currently most important – user associations dedicated to SOA. Our members profit by exchanging knowledge and experiences, and by driving the development of SOA and enterprise architecture together. They have access to the knowledge and practical expertise of companies keenly interested in this subject. And they can tap resources that they would have difficulty accessing on their own – for example, through our cooperation with academic institutions and universities.

What’s more, they can save costs. For example, it’s very expensive to develop a training program for enterprise architecture. It’s much cheaper to devise one curriculum for everyone than a different one for each company. Furthermore, our members can bundle demand and thus help define the direction that enterprise architecture will take among providers. What’s more important for members – exchanging experiences in the community or saving money by sharing development costs?

Helbig: That’s a question that can only be answered by each company individually. Both aspects play a role. However, I believe that promoting SOA in practice is more important, because the benefits created by IT are generally bigger and more significant than the cost factor. But saving costs makes it very easy to make a decision. One of the taglines of the SOA Innovation Lab is “Knowledge grows when it is shared.” But most companies think more along the lines of “We have to protect the expertise that gives us a competitive advantage.” How does the SOA Innovation Lab deal with this mismatch?

Helbig: We’re not divulging any trade secrets if we sit down together and think about how we can cultivate our IT landscapes more effectively. There are definitely borders between setting up an enterprise architecture and – for example – the question of how the customer service process works in a bank that wants to differentiate itself from its competitors using precisely this process. Furthermore, the SOA Innovation Lab has governance mechanisms in place so that projects can also be run on a small scale with only a few participants and our academic partners.