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Michael Liebow, IBM

Special to ZDNet

Commentary–It’s still early in 2005 and service oriented architecture (SOA) is already being positioned to be one of the most talked about terms of the year.

Michael Liebow,
Vice President,
Web Services
IBM Global Services

Industry pundits have pondered numerous questions and made many predictions. Will 2005 be the year for SOA? Will this be the year customers implement an SOA? Will SOA be most talked about term of the year? Will it become the most over-hyped term?

I’d like to add one more to the list. Do customers even want an SOA?

Nearly all conversations about SOAs focus on flexibility, breaking down applications into services, modular, reuse, increased availability and management of services. What does all this really mean? These conversations are often discussed in a vacuum void of any real business problem or opportunity that needs to be addressed. This creates risk that SOAs may evolve into the use of technology for technology’s sake. They slice, they dice, they do anything you need them to do faster, cheaper and more efficient than anything else ever used. The industry is just starting to recover from the downfall created the last time this happened.

I haven’t met with a single customer that said their top business concern is their inability to create services out of applications. What’s missing in these conversations are real business problems customers need to solve today. Telco and wireless service providers worry about customer churn. Pharmaceuticals stay up nights trying to get new drugs that save lives to market faster. Hospitals want patient records kept up to date and available to doctors when needed during emergencies.

A different kind of conversation needs to start. This conversation needs to focus on how solving real business problems is critical to helping customers transform to on demand businesses that can quickly respond to rapidly changing market environments. An SOA can help do this by providing an industry standard framework that is interchangeable, adaptive and flexible, but most importantly is closely linked to the business. The industry standards argument for nearly every other successful use of industry standards also applies to SOAs. Standards make it easier to do business and create efficiencies of scale.

Business leaders who are not aware of the benefits an SOA can provide will likely lose a competitive edge in the marketplace as more nimble competitors take advantage of this new, enabling technology. The business value SOAs provide is so great that analysts predict in just a couple of years enterprises will spend $21 billion on software and services to achieve these benefits.

SOAs are strategically centered at the intersection of business and technology to enable enterprises to adapt quickly to changing environments. An SOA allows the IT department to literally keep pace with business imperatives as it automates business processes by abstracting the process from the underlying application and IT systems. This separation of automated process from IT creates enormous business flexibility, allowing business leaders to take greater control of how business is transacted within the enterprise and with partners, suppliers and customers.

Nearly every business process in every company is linked to technology. With an SOA, an organization can provide services to employees, customers and business partners without the time and expense involved in past proprietary efforts. Because everyone follows the same set of standards, enterprises can be responsive, flexible and competitive. Evolving an SOA across the enterprise frees up IT resources and helps to ensure that investments in technology are focused on core capabilities aimed at growing the business.

Customers need to approach building an SOA based on the needs of the business. A detailed identification and prioritization of services that a business needs to develop or expose to support improved business processes must be developed. A company, or more specifically, and IT department, can’t guess what services will add the greatest value. They need a systematic approach to building a roadmap for implementing a service-oriented architecture.

This approach can help ensure that goals set by business process modeling can actually be implemented to generate the greatest result in an efficient manner. Evolving an SOA across the enterprise frees up IT resources and helps to ensure that investments in technology are focused on core capabilities aimed at growing the business.

Getting back to my original question, I doubt that I’ll meet with a customer this year or in any other year that demands they must have an SOA. An SOA is a roadmap. It’s a means to an end. What customers are demanding is flexibility to maximize revenue, provide better customer service, lower costs and assist in regulatory compliance. An SOA is an industry standard way to help them to do that.

Michael Liebow is vice president for the Web services division of IBM Global Services.