SOA's Secret Decoder Ring

Loraine Lawson

This time of year, I always revisit "A Christmas Story." It's a family tradition-in fact, right now, I'm writing this by the "soft glow of electric sex, gleaming in the window." That's right: We have our very own miniature leg lamp replica, which my husband hauls out every Christmas and proudly displays in the living room.


One scene that I think nicely summarizes the commercial hazards of childhood is the "Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring" scene, in which Ralphie earns a ring after drinking Ovaltine all summer. But when he uses the ring to decode Annie's secret message, he's disappointed to learn it reads: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine." Talk about a dirty trick.


Still, sometimes I think it'd be useful to have a decoder ring-like, for instance, when you talk about SOA. And as it turns out, The Open Group has recently published just such a tool-but without the crummy commercial at the end.


Heather Kreger and Dr. Chris Harding had the unenviable task of briefing me on The Open Group's new SOA Ontology Technical Standard. Bless their hearts (as we say in the south when we feel sorry for someone).


They are certainly qualified. Kreger is the co-chair for The Open Group's SOA Work Group, as well as IBM's lead architect for Smarter Planet, Policy, and SOA Standards in the IBM Software Group, with 15 years of standards experience. Harding is The Open Group's SOA Working Group forum director, the primary author of "The SOA Sourcebook," and holds a Ph.D in mathematical logic. So, smart people-clearly up to the task.


Can you guess who was the weakest link here?


So I'm not even going to try to explain the complexities of the SOA ontology-which you can view for yourself. But thanks to their patience, I can tell you why it's a good thing and long overdue. Here's a short list of what I thought were the key points for those who deal with SOA and vendors without actually having to be knee-deep in the technicalities of it:


  • Don't be thrown by the word "ontology." This is not about the semantic Web or anything like that. This ontology just defines all the terms you find thrown about with SOA-services, processes, choreography versus collaboration and so on. Think of it as a glossary for architects, vendors and others involved in the more technical aspects of SOA. This isn't as straight-forward as you may think-as Harding pointed out, SOA gets the term "services from the business," but there's a difference in the meaning. That's just one barrier techies encounter when they try to explain SOA or talk about services with business users.
  • It's like a decoder ring for vendor-speak, and therefore, useful to you as a consumer of business technology. One of the more confusing points about shopping for technologies that support SOA is that vendors can and do use the same terms to mean different things-or different terms to mean the same thing. This makes comparison shopping a challenge. The ontology is largely the creation of vendors, true-but if the vendor supports the standard, then you've got a decoder ring that tells you what they mean when they toss terms at you. "These are different products and there are people using these products and expecting them to behave in a certain way," Harding explained. "Because they have the same ontology as a basis for the way they understand service, they behave in a similar way when you use them to do things with services. So there's a benefit in terms of usability there."
  • That said, it's also more than "just" a glossary. If you're an enterprise architect or overseeing the nitty-gritty of service design, it can help you model your services and create the basic building blocks of SOA, according to Kreger. "One of the advantages of us doing this ontology beyond just a glossary is it gives us semantic foundation that we can now express in OWL, which is used by Protege and reasoning engines, and also we could provide a UML expression for ... these tools that architects already use and already exist in the industry giving SOA a leg up in the development cycle," she said. For more on how enterprise architects can use the ontology, check out Kreger's blog post on the topic.


You might also want to read SOA expert Joe McKendrick's concise explanation of the ontology. If you'd like even more details, you can download the ontology itself for free-no drinking of Ovaltine required.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 27, 2010 2:02 PM Akiva Marks Akiva Marks  says:

Your articles continue to filter gems of value from overflowing hordes of information on difficult topics.

Thank you.


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