The battlefield of the IT industry is littered with the empty shells of silver bullets that were intended to solve users problems once and for all. The latest, shiniest of these bullets is service oriented architectures (SOA).

From a vendor perspective, SOA has become a mantra that can be chanted to address almost every issue they face. For example, if you are Oracle faced with a heap of acquired companies with different code bases and a user base that needs answers about the future, then fear not: SOA is that answer; just as it is the answer if you are Microsoft or SAP or any one of a hundred other companies.

But this has led to an inevitable confusion in the market about what exactly SOA is. As vendors opportunistically purloin the term to meet their own particular needs, so too the number of definitions on offer increases. Are we talking about web services? Is this another manifestation of components? Or is it all just a load of old objects?

Lost all meaning

“I think it is a big problem,” says Clive Longbottom, head of research at Quiocera. “We do need a common definition. I can’t give you one because I’ve heard too many of them and trying to take bits from each and saying this covers the whole lot means you end up with something so fluffy it is completely useless.

“We need the vendors to do what they have been very bad at doing in the past; actually create the market before selling into it,” says Longbottom. “We’re just in the midst of doing some research at the moment and we’re finding that business people haven’t got a clue what SOA is about. Technical people think they have got an idea but when you actually dig behind it, what they’re doing is looking at SOA as a means of actually integrating existing applications.”

David Roberts, chief executive of the Corporate IT Forum (tif), suggests that business considerations must be added to the mix, arguing that a focus on SOA as a technology concept is potentially misleading. “SOA is something that’s out there but it’s about organisations achieving integration,” he says.

“It’s about IT being an element of automation of the business process. In terms of integration, if you look at the agenda of most enterprises they want to leverage some of the function within the legacy applications but they also want new business services. The business service should be the determining dimension. That’s what the target should be for organisations rather than just going to get some SOA.”

Changing business needs

Roberts argues that a necessary starting point is to consider how the nature of business has changed in recent years and cites BA as a prime example.

“If you consider what has happened to BA as a business over the past five years, you have got to wonder how it is still flying. It has changed almost every single business process that it has and it is back in the sky, making money and people are queuing to get on its planes. It is a good example of a company that has been under very serious pressure and has had to reengineer itself. It has pushed that all the way through the organisation and that is why it is a SOA thinker.”

Roberts believes that leisure and travel is a sector that is particularly ripe for the benefits of SOA.

“An organisation like Hilton Hotels is no longer an internal organisation,” he says. “They have to make all their services available to booking agents. Whereas before they were looking at how do we create an extranet, that’s no good any more. When you are looking at Last Minute.com or Expedia, it’s a case of searching across Hilton and everybody else as well, so they have to have a SOA.”

The real deal

BT can see both sides of the fence – while its services arm offers advice and consultancy on SOA, the firm itself is engaged in deploying its own enterprise SOA, which is the responsibility of chief architect, George Glass.

“I think vendors are responsible for saying ‘yes, SOAs are what you want’ and user organisations are hearing all this hype and buzz around SOA and saying, ‘right, let’s go out and get that’. You end up with this tick-box driven, ‘now we’ve got a fake SOA’ situation. When I’m talking to some of BT’s customers, the two things that I’m asked the most is, ‘how do I know when I’ve got a SOA’ and ‘how do I tell when I’ve got a real, effective SOA and not a fake SOA?’

“In some cases it is quite easy for them to fake and to create the appearance of a SOA by having a couple of ticks in the boxes. For example, services repository, data repositories, loose cable applications and so on. You can say you have got all of those but fundamentally the IT stuff remains the same, the business model is the same and the kind of business wide transformation that SOA implies isn’t in evidence at all. Therefore the benefits which SOA promises to deliver, aren’t really being delivered.”

All about business

BT has some clear goals in mind for its own SOA deployment. “One of the things that we’re looking at doing is rationalising our systems estate on to a set of platforms and then looking at those platforms,” says Glass.

“A typical platform would be customer management, a billing and payments or a service management platform. If you look at our billings and payment platform for example, we have 231 systems or applications in that platform but we can express billings and payments in terms of about 15 or 20 business services. That’s what we need to be talking about to our business partners within BT. We need to talk about those business services and not about the integration of the systems. That allows us to rationalise behind the scenes of that billing and payment platform so that we can condense it from 231 applications down to 15 or 20 applications, which gives us a chance of achieving the agility and the flexibility that our CEOs are looking for. They are not asking for SOA, what they want are cheaper, more agile systems and faster time to market.”

Integrated services

This last point does raise an interesting question: never mind a common definition, is there even a common language inside the organisation about SOA? Does the CEO think SOA is about the same thing as the CIO? In fact, does anyone even use the term outside the vendor community?

"In some cases it is quite easy for them to fake and to create the appearance of a SOA by having a couple of ticks in the boxes"

George Glass, chief architect, BT

“We don’t talk about SOA but we do talk about integration,” says Jeff Cook, director of business systems at City University.

“We do talk about having integrated services available through the web. Our services are becoming more based on the website. I think that’s one of the reasons why focusing on SOA is perhaps a bit misguided because it is more about integration. It is about having the approach that enables a business to get the most out of the legacy, get the most out of applications that are there and serving their business needs today.

“SOA isn’t something that any organisation would say ‘right, I need SOA’ and buy one off the shelf. You can’t have a massive multi-million pound redevelopment and just replace everything. It’s just not practical, the business can’t do it,” says Cook. “You have to have an approach that says ‘I am going to develop services in a reusable way with SOA support but I’m also going to also enable my legacy applications, for example, to wear a service cloak’.”

He adds: “It means I can get as much as I possibly can out of those applications until such time that I want to move away and retire them.”

The uptake

So bottom line question: are CIOs ready to write a cheque for SOA now? The answer, it seems, is a definite maybe. While organisations like Harrods and the DSA are investing, others are less certain. “It wouldn’t buy us anything. The business is not asking for it,” says John Edwards, applications software manager, Wellington Underwriting. “There is a lot of looking at our own navels trying to sort of identify where the business process is right and that’s being driven by the business. We have a single contiguous system. We are very fortunate in that we don’t have a history of various packages and different pieces. Everything is inhouse and bespoke, so we have total control and change is not an issue for us. To me the need for a SOA type approach is if the business processes fundamentally change the sequence of what you are doing and you go across departments rather than vertically within departments.”

"SOA isn’t something that any organisation would just want to go ‘right, I need SOA’ and buy one off the shelf. You can’t have a massive multi-million pound redevelopment and just replace everything. It’s just not practical, the business can’t do it"

Jeff Cook, director of business systems, City University

The conclusion is surely that if SOA is a silver bullet, not everyone is ready to take aim and fire just yet. But for those who choose to take up arms, it is a bullet that can hit the target, even if that target is not always what it is assumed to be.

DSA

The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) is an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport (DfT) and is part of the Driver, Vehicle and Operator (DVO) Group. The DSA promotes road safety by testing drivers, motorcyclists and driving instructors through the theory and practical driving test. It also maintains the registers of approved driving instructors, large goods vehicle instructors, pass plus pupils, fleet trainers and supervises training for learner motorcyclists. But the main service it provides is booking, cancelling and changing dates for driving tests for the public. The DSA receives requests for over 1.8m tests a year with a large number of calls coming from people trying to get a cancellation. In the past, this has been handled by call centre agents and automated speech recognition.

With such levels of demand, the DSA needed to move away from a silo-based approach to a single, online self-service booking application that would be easier to manage. It has identified three strategic priorities – better services for customers, better compliance and better value for money – which will be supported by a one-stop service strategy. The goal is joined-up customer services.

Using services technology from Amberpoint, the SOA strategy is being managed by outsourcing firm Capita.

“The DSA is an organisation like any other, albeit in the public sector,” says Neil Marley, enterprise integration architect at Capita IT Services. “They had heard SOA mentioned when they were looking at strategies. Government is actually one of the sectors that leads in this sort of arena. It is looking seriously at how it can take advantage of services.” In the summer, the system went live to external users with driving instructors being responsible for their own data online.

Early internal efficiency metrics from ongoing pilots of the system show that the Internet Booking Service accounted for more than 43 per cent of all bookings. The use of the automated speech recognition has reduced significantly, in line with the DSA’s channel shift to online self-service.

Harrods

Harrods may be the country’s largest department store, but its luxury brand is not enough to cushion it from the market pressures of an increasingly competitive retail sector. To that end, the store needs to maximise its operational efficiency.

The company has been engaged in a three-year overhaul of its IT infrastructure.

So far, IT spending has been cut by 60 per cent and the IT department headcount has been reduced from 160 to 76 people.

Harrods is now rolling out a SOA deployment, using the Sun Java Integration Suite, to streamline its business processes. Essentially Harrods is developing a SOA to create a single view of customer information – that is currently held in different formats on different databases – in order to power its multi-channel marketing strategy.

The first phase of the deployment will involve customer data integration to create a customer-centric view of legacy system data that can support the next wave of growth anticipated by Harrods.

This single, common view of customer, product and promotional data will span back-end systems from both brick-and-mortar and online sites.

According to David Llamas, Harrods’ CIO, the SOA will decrease the time it takes to complete new IT projects and reduce the total cost of ownership of its IT infrastructure.

“The integration work will help analyse customer behaviour, improve the support of IT in decision making and enable the use of predictive models for more effective campaign planning,” he argues.

“One of the advantages is that we move away from a point-to-point integration so that integration is based on a single technology. Our total cost of ownership should be decreasing as we consolidate technologies.”