“SOA is important!” is the verdict of Professor Helmut Krcmar, who holds the chair for business informatics at the Technical University of Munich. But what does SOA (service-oriented architecture) actually mean? There are many different definitions of the term in the academic world, but basically, it’s all about decoupling business processes from the technology on which they are based. As a result, when business processes change – such as when one company is taken over by another – there’s no need to rebuild the underlying IT systems. In conventional IT environments, this is often what has to be done.
Taken root in the business world
SOA isn’t just a theory, but is now reality in the business world. At the SOA Days, German heavyweights such as Deutsche Post and the utility company EnBW were there as testimony to this – and government agencies such as the German Federal Employment Agency (BA) are also adopting the approach.
For Klaus Vitt, CIO of the BA, service-oriented architecture is a key part of his organization’s IT strategy in the coming years. Unlike privately run companies, the BA has to observe a myriad of legal regulations, as well as put the technical structures in place. For example, it has only been possible for people to register the loss of their job over the Internet since 2009. Before this service was implemented, the relevant law had to be amended.
Modular software system
In service-oriented architecture, business processes are defined as individual “services.” Using a modular system, these are then technically mapped with individual components. And it’s important to note here that all the services can interact, thanks to defined open Web services. That’s why the hardware and software underneath the services are irrelevant.
The problem with conventional IT systems
In companies that have evolved over decades, there are often redundant systems in different departments for one and the same function. They often arise when an individual department expresses a need for certain functions in existing programs and then receives custom developments from the IT department – even though 90% of the required functionalities could already be found in the original software. Redundancies don’t just mean unnecessary costs. A much more serious problem is that duplicate data can lead to different data records. Merging the data at a later stage is both problematic and expensive.
A modern government agency
Once an organization has decided to transform its IT landscape in line with the SOA principle, the business processes must be defined. According to Vitt, this is essential and often holds the key to the project’s success.
In the BA service centers, employees need to get to grips with 14 different IT processes to enter transactions such as registering people as job seekers or assigning appointments. This is inefficient and also means that new employees have to attend time-consuming training courses.
Thanks to the agency’s own SOA project, role-based interfaces (known at the BA as “RobasO”) are set to make the employees’ work easier. These user interfaces are put together using the same modules – like building blocks – and display the relevant control panels. Because the role-based interfaces cannot be mapped in the SAP software that the BA uses, the agency is developing its own interface. Between 50 and 60 role-based interfaces are planned.
According to Vitt, the new user interfaces are set to make the service center employees around 10% more efficient. The potential savings as a result of reduced need for training have not yet been calculated, he adds. Another benefit will be that the individual cases will be much better documented.