SOA to the Rescue: Save IT, Save the Business


I will never forget my first run-in with a large IT department. I'd been hired to oversee the agency's Web presence, due to some very poor content and graphic decisions made by the IT division. They were not happy to have this new, exciting technology endeavor taken away from them and given to the PR department.


Hey-it was the neonatal days of the Web. Everybody was still trying to figure out how to make it work.


Anyway, I needed a few things if I was going to design Web pages, and one of those things was Adobe Photoshop. At that time, it was not only the best product available for photo manipulation, it was the only real choice for a professional organization. So, I naively went and asked the IT department for it.


The IT department balked. No way, they said. We're a Microsoft-only shop. No way. I even appealed to the so-called CIO. He was particularly dour about the whole thing. "We only buy Microsoft," he informed me.


Except ... that wasn't true, and I knew it. In fact, IT staff had three copies, running on their Windows PCs, which they used for the public Web site and the intranet. And I just happened to learn that at least one of those copies was being used by an on-staff IT guy to run a side-business building Web sites - a side business launched on company time.


So, needless to say, I soon had a copy of PhotoShop, as well as my first lesson in the importance of IT/business alignment.


Now, I know that's a truly egregious example of a bad IT department, but these things do happen, to a lesser degree, often enough to make business users a bit bitter. Being told no when you know the answer should and could be yes is just unacceptable.


In my situation, I was the only one in my department's staff who realized the absurdity of IT's claims that Photoshop wouldn't run on Windows. (I understand that at one point, that was true, but it wasn't by the time I arrived, as the IT department well knew.) I was able to call them out on that one, and I actually made friends doing so - that's how popular the IT department was.


But today's business users are way more savvy. They have the Internet at home and on their cell phones. They use technology all the time, wherever and however they please. When you tell them you can't support social networking or what-have-you, they know someone else can, because they've got the friends list and telecommunications bill to prove it.


And that's why I think Ronald Schmelzer of ZapThink is right when he writes that cloud computing could spell the end for IT departments-and it will be IT's own fault:


"Complexity, fragility, unpredictability, and unreliability all conspire to turn even the simplest of business requests for IT capabilities into a months-long, expenditure-heavy activity. And until very recently, there was really very little that the lines of business could do about that. Every business-IT interaction becomes a negotiation, with business trying to wrangle as much functionality as the time and budget would allow, and the IT department trying to limit new requirements so as to maximize the impact on an already over-stretched infrastructure."


Sound familiar? It did to me.


Oh, sure, this won't happen today or tomorrow, because, as Schmelzer acknowledges, there are still too many security, privacy, access and, I would add, integration challenges. But eventually, cloud vendors will work out these technical issues, and then, as Schmelzer reminds us:


"The real issue is an organizational one: will a business audience already fed up with IT's inability to meet business imperatives authorize their non-IT users to get their needs met by outside providers? If so, Cloud, SaaS, and Web 2.0 companies will quickly rise to the challenge (and newfound revenue streams) and solve the aforementioned technology challenges much faster than the IT department can react to the threat."


In other words, the cloud will allow business users to get what they want, with or without you.


Schmelzer believes service-oriented architecture is the only way for internal IT divisions to compete with the cloud. But hold on a minute. Is this something IT can really do by itself?


While Schmelzer makes a good case for IT adoption of SOA, I think if IT's ever really going to solve that IT/business alignment problem, both CIOs and CEOs would do well to follow up Schmelzer's article by reading, "What Drives SOA, Business or IT?" The article, published recently by SOA Magazine, is written by Peter Woodhull, who specializes in business process management and systems interoperability.


Woodhull believes SOA can save both IT and the business, but he makes a strong argument for why SOA won't succeed as an IT-only initiative:


"In particular, an SOA implementation will be risky for the IT group as they will be the sole responsible party expected to produce all the benefits of an SOA while avoiding or mitigating all the risks. Additionally, the IT group will be responsible for paying for the implementation. This is not the environment into which any organization should embark on an SOA implementation."


Woodhull has a novel concept for businesses and IT: Adopt service-orientation as a philosophy, not an architecture:


"...a successful SOA implementation must be focused upon a vision of customer-centric services that leverage standardized capabilities in a dynamic and evolutionary manner. ... Service-orientation is a philosophy; it is not a silver bullet. In fact, service-orientation can actually make life harder. It is much easier to say that the current system cannot do something therefore we (the company) cannot do it either. By comparison, successful SOA implementations enable companies to say that although we do not possess a capability today, we can have that functionality in a few weeks if it will increase the value of the service we are providing to our clients."


Focusing on the customer? By providing services? By gosh, it's just crazy enough to work for both IT and the business.