SAP has all moved into enterprise service-oriented architectures (enterprise SOA) for its new feature sets – and with good reason. In a recent Gartner study, 75 percent of companies surveyed said they plan to use service-oriented architectures for upcoming CRM, ERP or SCM initiatives.
Sooner or later, IT departments may begin planning for the migration to these new platforms – if they haven’t started already. But do professionals know their enterprise IT plans for SOA, ERP migration, or ERP consolidation? In order to participate actively, knowledgeably, and effectively in those plans and ensure that the needs of their departments are served optimally, its important for them considering the main features of SOA.
Service-oriented architectures unlock information so it can flow to every user, human or automated, that needs it, streamlining processes and assisting businesses as they connect with their customers, partners, suppliers and employees.
The greatest strength of SOAs is their ability to integrate systems and reuse software that is already built. Most corporate IT environments are a hodgepodge of systems assembled over years of acquisitions, divestitures, and internal growth. Setting corporate standards for hardware, operating systems, database structures and other parameters has been a daunting – if not impossible – task.
In the past, integrating heterogeneous systems – either within companies or between companies and their business partners – typically required a difficult-to-develop proprietary interface that was vulnerable to breakage every time one of the constituent systems changed. A SOA makes integration possible without having to re-invent the wheel for each new project by letting businesses bridge communications gaps between custom or packaged applications written in different programming languages, developed by different vendors, or running on different platforms – from mainframes to Windows-based servers – and different operating systems.
More system flexibility
Many companies support multiple ERP systems. In the tax department, for example, multiple order-entry systems all too often have required companies to maintain multiple instances of sales and use tax software and data – each running a custom interface.
In contrast, a SOA allows multiple systems to access tax services running on a platform-independent, Web-based server. ERP, billing or e-Commerce systems across the organization access the centralized tax service through their existing Intranet, eliminating the need for costly hardware setups, software updates and patches to multiple instances of the tax software.
Tax data can be maintained independently from the tax service, so it can be more easily accessed, updated, and maintained, allowing for more comprehensive data maintenance and reducing dependence on IT. In turn, tax calculation and taxability decisions can be made uniformly and consistently across the entire organization, and tax data from multiple systems or locations can be consolidated for filing transaction tax returns.
Lastly, because a SOA allows the deployment of tax solutions separately from the enterprise software, ERP system upgrades no longer require lockstep tax software upgrades.
Faster implementation and greater scalability
The adoption of a service-oriented architecture can dramatically lower the cost of implementation by reducing the need for systems integration. In addition, a relatively shallow learning curve for SOA developments has already spawned a substantial base of programmers, so finding talent is less problematic than in other new technology areas. Since most of the existing technology stacks have already been enhanced to allow for SOA development, developers are able to use their existing toolsets and languages to develop and integrate across the SOA landscape.
The deployment flexibility of a service-oriented architecture allows for greater scalability and better overall performance. Because a SOA is distributed across multiple servers, services can move around the network transparently. This permits longer uptime while allowing the underlying infrastructure that the services run on to be re-sized or upgraded. Additionally, multiple instances of the same service can run concurrently to handle increased load. In this way, SOA finally delivers the scalability benefits that distributed systems have long promised, while keeping the technology and implementation standards-based.
A service-oriented architecture delivers ROI by lowering both the cost of integration and the cost of maintenance. Today, programming a link between two custom applications can cost as much as $1 million. Even with the expense of retraining developers in SOA technologies and converting existing applications to a service-oriented archictecture, most analysts believe a SOA will deliver long-term positive ROI, as multiple disparate applications are combined into a handful of SOA services.
In the near term, SOA will allow companies to maintain fewer instances of software and allow for process centralization. In the mid term, if businesses can extend the lifespan of existing solutions instead of having to write new ones, and use lower-cost SOA developers, ROI can grow quickly by reducing costs associated with IT consulting and systems integration.
Four steps to be prepared
Migration to a SOA could be inevitable in a company. The only question is whether the departments will be prepared for it or not. Managers can ensure that they will be ready for this sea change by taking four key steps.
- First they have to be alert for key IT triggers that signal potential direct impact on the department. Introduction of a SOA may ride the coattails of other IT initiatives, or it may be an independent initiative. Some key inflection points include an upgrade or new installation of an ERP system, process centralization or an announced shift towards service-oriented architecture.
- Second they have to keep the lines of communication with IT open and active. Talking to the IT department makes sure that the company’s upcoming business applications will support service-oriented architecture standards. For example, tax managers may not make decisions about platform or application choice, but it behooves them to get involved in the implementation planning of any new ERP deployment or upgrade. Managers have to add SOA to the checklist of things they want to discuss with IT before and during this process.
- Third managers have to ask the right questions. Because SOA implementations may require the participation and cooperation of multiple functions within the company, they must be sure to surface the important cross-organizational issues early. One important question is what new project management structures – and how much funding – will be necessary to coordinate the delivery of a new service-oriented application. It is also important to ask what new project configurations will ensure adequate technical coordination between related SOA-based applications and how early in the delivery lifecycle the company can identify application dependencies and reuse opportunities.
- And forth managers have to focus on business needs. Deploying a SOA is as much a business issue as it is a technology issue. For many companies, in fact, the key challenges will not be implementing the software architecture but defining the business rules and modeling the business processes that the software will serve. While the IT department is implementing internal uses of SOA – the first step for most companies – stay abreast of the evolution of SOA technology. Managers have to identify current issues that affect their department and its functions directly and re-evaluate the processes that may be affected as SOA technology is implemented.
An IT model closer to business needs
A SOA drives a new, more productive relationship between the departments and IT. Rather than throwing the needs of the departments – tax accruals on purchases, for example – “over the wall” to IT in the form of a requirements document, a SOA enables the tax department and IT to work collaboratively to fit the technology solution to the business process.
With a service-oriented architecture, the technology becomes a change agent – not an impediment to change. By utilizing this flexible technology, businesses are able to incorporate new processes, software, and even newly acquired companies or divisions more effectively and efficiently than in the past.