Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) – Long in the Tooth?

April 18, 2012

While Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) appeared in the 90s as a programming paradigm buzzword term, engineers like Erik Townsend established and promoted the underlying concepts during the early 80s. In fact, it remains somewhat unclear as to exactly when and where SOA coalesced as a methodology and who gets the credit. Many hold that the Gartner Group ‘invented’ SOA; however, Townsend would tell you that they merely formalized the trend in the 90s (Townsend).

Regardless of how it came to be, SOA grew from a notion to break down functions in a large organization into services that seamlessly work together; the earliest example related by Townsend involved ‘islands of automation’ within DEC in 1982 (Townsend). During the 90s, the idea grew into a programming paradigm that describes services as self-contained modules surrounded by exhaustive metadata about what the service does in an organization’s overall solution architecture; for example check processing or account creation modules, i.e. discrete functions. SOA knits those services together via connections or messages sent between service providers and service consumers (Barry). In other words, consumers (users) within an organization can take advantage of services offered within an organization’s solution without any knowledge of how the individual services communicate or how the development team implemented them. In an ideal SOA, consumers simply choose from a ‘palette’ of services to get their particular task done, string them together, and obtain results. The SOA takes care of all communication and integration on the back-end with the consumer none the wiser. The ARGO bank branch software support project at my employer, CTS, is the best real-world example I can think of. The engineers trained in ARGO support do almost no development; the internal ARGO development team takes care of all the inner workings and logic behind each module along with inter-module communication. Our support engineers simply choose which of the predefined modules to use on a per-branch basis and create a solution by ‘stringing’ them together logically to solve problems.

The promise of the principles behind SOA, reduced costs and increased agility, caused many organizations to jump on the bandwagon and begin large overhaul initiatives with major organizations like IBM offering SOA consulting services. However, as Anne Thomas Manes puts it, SOA ‘died’ in 1999 with the economic recession citing ‘SOA fatigue has turned into SOA disillusionment’. According to Manes, organizations have invested millions in SOA initiatives to curb costs and increase agility yet many have experienced wildly increased costs and countless failed projects. She further adds most successful organizations include SOA as part of a much larger change initiative rather than relying on SOA alone to effect the transformation. ‘Long live services’ she says so long as they exist within the overarching strategy (Manes). Counter to Manes, Doug Barry holds SOA remains relevant to organizations citing high traffic and interest on his website. Barry goes on to say most IT projects fail regardless of whether the group employed SOA or not. He also contends SOA need not be part of a larger, massive transformation. Rather, organizations should vet changes in smaller increments, prove those changes effective, and move on to larger initiatives (Barry).

With the relevance of SOA itself party to some contention in professional circles, its progeny live on in the form of newer paradigms centered around services to consumers, most notably software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing; both modern initiatives experiencing success in the current technological climate. Even if SOA might be ‘dead’, the exercise was not in vain.

-Mike Gann (EGR644, Spring 2012)

Barry, Douglas K. Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) Definition.

Manes, Anne Thomas. SOA is Dead; Long Live Services.

Townsend, Erik. The 25-Year History of Service-Oriented Architecture.


3 Responses to “Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) – Long in the Tooth?”

  1. I agree Mike. Many names and buzzwords have come and gone during the tech era but the principles and legacies they leave behind still apply. I think what happened is that these SOA infrastructures had to adapt and change with the inevitable advancement of technology, which led to natural changes in the services being advertised. Thus, the service being provided did not remain as a standard, predictable output that other applications could take advantage of. Further, to present a usable result at a consumers level meant that there was a lot of complexity to write in order to deliver the SOA results when capturing the same data at a programmatic level is always much more efficient and simple. APIs are probably the best promise for being able to continue the concept of SOA but leveraging those requires some degree of programming. It will be interesting to see how cloud and mobile play out in the game of delivering a unique experience to each consumer. Good article!

  2. Mike Gann said

    Yeah, I think the fundamental SOA concepts are a great idea but the realities of implementation seem to have made it a little more difficult and expensive to realize than most organization might’ve initially thought. SaaS and cloud computing make some great strides, but the consumer still has to know a little about what they’re doing to get it set up right unless the provider has gone to great lengths to build an easy interface. I’ve not doubt technology will push it forward even more, but it’ll have a new acronym by then.

  3. Mike Gann said

    Looks like my 4th source wasn’t included above. Here it is:

    Barry, Doug. (The Acronym) SOA is (Perhaps) Dead (at Some Companies); Long Live Services.

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