SOA comes of age

True believers spread the word about its transformational power

Service-oriented architecture is taking hold in
the government as a model for the information
technology networks of the future, and vendors
and contractors are positioning
themselves to take advantage of it.

Broadly speaking, SOA is the
use of open standards to link applications from
many vendors, leading to an enterprisewide IT
structure that avoids the isolated silos that have
plagued large organizations for decades. The
open standards allow customers to pay less attention
to whom they're buying hardware from and
instead emphasize performance and cost.

The concept is exciting and promising, but
market analysts say its openness can make it a
tough sell because it takes away the advantage of
proprietary software for vendors trying to confine
customers to a single brand.

"I think the computer science conversations
are finished, meaning that people have made up
their minds that the right way to architect systems
is the way implied by service-oriented
architecture," said Dave McQueeney, chief technology
officer at IBM Corp.'s federal division.
"Now [the need] is to flow the information down
to people in operational positions."

IBM created the Federal SOA Institute
to provide some of that understanding and
education.

Another obstacle is the way agencies buy technology,
McQueeney said. The traditional
approach is to break an acquisition into small
components and try to buy each one separately
rather than seeing the whole
puzzle at once.

"If you break things into
smaller pieces than it makes
sense to do, you end up spending
more money gluing the pieces
back together," McQueeney said.

The SOA concept is not new, he added.

However, in the past, the computational power
that could provide the kind of agility such a
system needed wasn't available. Information
silos grew not because people
thought that walling off their
information was a good idea but
because it was the only practical approach in
many cases, he said.

Now SOA is possible. "In the end, it becomes
simple," McQueeney said. "The technology
became powerful enough that it almost stepped
out of the way and went behind a curtain."
Although the technology is ready, the market
is only slowly taking shape, said Deniece
Peterson, a senior analyst at the Input Executive
Program. "The growth of SOA in the federal government
is happening gradually and incrementally,"
she said.

Since 2003, SOA has appeared by name in
only 65 to 70 opportunities out of the thousands
in Input's database, she said. However, the greatest
number of those appeared in the past couple
of years, suggesting that more agencies are
adopting SOA.

"A lot is happening at the task-order level, so
we're not necessarily seeing tons of the big opportunities,"
she said.

Peterson predicted that contractors will eventually
be expected to offer SOA-ready solutions,
though she couldn't say how long it would take
for that approach to become the norm.

Sun Microsystems Inc. has demonstrated its
commitment to open source and SOA by making
almost all of its products open source in the past
few years, said Bill Vass, president of Sun's federal
division.

To make SOA adoption easier, Sun has implemented
features such as dynamic tracing, which
allows operators to quickly pinpoint the source of
a software problem without having to take the
system out of production for debugging. Sun also
indemnifies its open-source software, meaning
that if someone claims to be the author of a program
and demands payment, the user is protected
against any liability.

Furthermore, SOA implementations let users
engage in activities such as pulling bits of information
about a person from several databases ?
regardless of who created the databases ? to
assemble a temporary, comprehensive view of
that person.

"Can you imagine the politics behind trying to
create a centralized database?" Vass asked.
"Instead of fighting that battle, you have an SOA
that can pull the information together and not
store it, just pull it together for that one view."

However, proprietary systems ? the foundations
of information silos ? are not likely to disappear
anytime soon, he added.

"I can't see any reason in the long term why
you would go with a proprietary system," Vass
said. "On the other side of the coin, there are a lot
of great proprietary systems out there that can
meet your needs."

Michael Hardy (mhardy@1105govinfo.com) is an
associate editor at Washington Technology.

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