Identifying SOA's ROI Still a Challenge

Loraine Lawson

Service-oriented architecture's Achilles' Heel has always been demonstrating return on investment. Apparently, that hasn't changed: Gartner analyst Matt Holte was recently in Australia, discussing this very problem with a group of IT professionals.


According to recent Gartner research, 36 percent of those queried about SOA say justification for it actually impedes SOA efforts. Sit with that a moment, would you please? When justification for the project causes problems, you've got to wonder what's going on.


It's 2010; SOA seems to be fairly well established, so much so that the SOA consultant firm ZapThink says it needs to expand its mission. And yet a third of companies still can't figure out how to show an ROI for SOA.


Of course, there have been a lot of attempts to answer this ROI challenge. Heck, back in 2007, Gartner actually suggested maybe ROI was the wrong question to ask.


The whole SOA-cost-justification question even made Joe McKendrick's list of Nine Great Unsolved Mystereies of SOA. McKendrick pointed out that the ROI for SOA shows up in economies of scale-but that can be tricky:

The economies of scale generated through SOA -- better ROI over the long haul -- contrast with the cheaper up-front implementation of point-to-point applications. However, the risk occurs when organizations think they're putting SOA in place, but end up with little or no ROI because it wasn't true SOA -- still point-to-point interfaces. Who's taking these risks -- or who's being asked to take these risks?

Holte offered a number of suggestions about cost justification for SOA-including No. 1, not talking about cost justification for SOA. Nobody outside IT cares about SOA, they care about business capabilities, he writes, so talk about that instead. That means focus on the granular level for ROI, rather than trying to justify SOA as a big-picture, high-cost investment, he suggests.


The other step he suggests is to do project reviews-and as part of that, business benefit assessments-at the end of projects.


There are some signs, though, that all is not lost when it comes to the business understanding SOA-or, at least, the service-oriented part of SOA. Recently, Deloitte Consulting wrote a guest column for CIO Update in which analysts argued that SOA is prompting a bigger trend that reaches beyond IT into the business: service thinking.


The article defines service thinking as "a framework for solving business problems by focusing on the capabilities of each part of the organization; cutting across business processes, organizational charts, and technology solutions." (Special thanks to ZD Net blogger and SOA aficionado McKendrick for pointing to the article in a recent post.)


I can't help but wonder if perhaps cloud computing and SaaS, with its focus on services, are also a part of this shift. Whatever the cause, it's bound to make life easier for SOA implementations and perhaps even contribute to putting IT and the business on the same page by giving them a common discussion framework-i.e., services.

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