SOA and the Emperor's New Clothes

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For some time now, I've been biting my tongue to keep from asking SOA experts one question. A few weeks ago, I couldn't stand it anymore. Right in the middle of an interview with Miko Matsumura, the vice president and deputy CTO at Software AG, I broke down and blurted out:

"It's starting to feel like SOA is the famous emperor who thought he was wearing fine threads and in fact he really had no clothes. What would you say to the CIO who is starting to wonder, SOA or any of these three-letter acronyms, are they really wearing any clothes?"

In other words, is SOA really as fancy and wonderful as vendors say -- or is it just maybe possible that, like the emperor's new clothes, underneath the hype there's nothing there at all?


I don't know why I picked on poor Matsumura. He's a nice guy. Really. He'd written a blog post proposing that WOA -- Web-oriented architecture -- could be the meaningful business "missing link" for SOA and business process. His thesis, which he explains in the full Q&A, is that Web technology adds a much-needed layer of customer service to what thus far has been a pretty two-sided conversation, with IT focused on SOA and business focused on business process.


But the emperor's new clothes question had been in my brain for some time and -- like the child in the famous parable - I finally couldn't hold my tongue any longer.


To his credit, Matsumura gave a thorough, reasoned response to my question. He said yes, SOA is real and, in fact, somewhat inevitable, particularly as IT is forced to deal with increased regulations -- or externalities, as he called them.

"When you have some kind of what I call, externality that comes at you like that, you're going to be in much better shape if you have done SOA. So in that sense, SOA is a little bit like root planting, or like some kind of dentistry. It isn't something that people necessarily are overjoyed about, but the alternatives are pretty extreme."

In this climate, you can either choose to pursue SOA and take control by breaking your own IT infrastructure into components -- or you can wait until it's essentially broken apart for you, said Matsumura.


That's when it occurred to me that SOA is neither nudity nor fine clothes. SOA is a uniform. And like a uniform, it can be transformative, particularly in organizations that have never bothered with uniformity before. SOA -- like a uniform -- standardizes. Standardization, ultimately, simplifies integrating parts into the whole.


The analogy appealed to Matsumura.

"It communicates something and it provides a way to kind of scale up an individual, right? Because if you're in a uniform, it means you're part of a system, a part of a federation, a part of an organization, and that is a really good tone, it hits the nail on the head."

Part of the problem, according to Matsumura, is that we actually have two working versions of SOA. There's what he calls "Legoland SOA" or Little SOA -- which is focused on components -- and Big SOA, which is what you get when you add in business process and Web-oriented technologies. Big SOA can be a strategic tool. But, human nature being what it is, people are loathe to give up their little fiefdoms and so, in practice, we wind up with "Little SOA" - pieces and silos, rather than a new strategic architecture. In this climate, SOA becomes "just" something that's done within IT and never realizes its transformative potential.


By marrying business processes and Web-oriented architecture to SOA, he believes companies can start to see the promised benefits of "Big SOA."