To SOA or Not to SOA During Economic Turmoil?


Recently, David Linthicum ran a poll asking his readers whether the down economy will increase or decrease interest in service-oriented architecture. I was surprised to learn that 75 percent said interest in SOA would increase.


Now, the catch is that Linthicum's InfoWorld column is specifically about SOA, and so you can safely assume that his readers are mostly SOA supporters or at least people with an interest in SOA. With participants self-selected, it's reasonable to think that this might not be the most reliable gauge of what will really happen with SOA in a down economy.


Joe McKendrick of ZDNet is also among those who believe the recession could provide a boost for SOA -- if implementations focus on improving the business. His position is that SOA and Web services came of age during the economic downturn of 2001 because they offered a "simpler, faster, and more agile way to build powerful systems." That's still true today, he points out.


To be honest, I'm pretty bit skeptical about the idea that a bad economy will be good for SOA. Certainly, I can see a case for companies that have a lot of mergers-and-acquisition work, such as in the financial sector. It's going to have to invest in integration and infrastructure anyway. Otherwise, I'm unconvinced. Here's why:


First, SOA doesn't have a clear return on investment -- or even a clear path to it. Linthicum says he's proven "many times" that SOA can lower costs over time using ROI analysis -- and he even has a white paper you can download to help you figure your own ROI. But most of what I've read is much less confident in SOA's ability to deliver an ROI, particularly in the short term. Gartner has even gone so far as to say ROI's not the right question -- and maybe it shouldn't be. But it will be, particularly now. (And while we're on it, now might be a good time to revisit the potential for integration to provide an ROI for SOA.)


Second, many IT divisions still aren't really sure how to implement SOA. Call me crazy, but I can't imagine this is the time your CIO will sign off on SOA by trial and error. You could, of course, hire a consultant, which would be advisable, but SOA consultants aren't cheap. And neither is supporting technology.


Third, just a few months ago, the SOA news was all about Anne Thomas Manes' largely fruitless search for SOA success stories. Now, we've found a few here and there, but that's the sort of thing that's hard to shake. How can you justify redirecting your IT architecture and spending value money -- and let's not forget, time - on something that's experienced a lukewarm reception, at best?


Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't do SOA. From everything I've seen and read, I'm convinced SOA makes sense and has long-term value. All I'm saying is, I'm skeptical that the down economy will translate into boom time for SOA.


So, I wasn't too excited when I saw, "Investing in SOA in a Down Economy," a recent piece by ZapThink's Ronald Schmelzer. But after reading it, I must say: Schmelzer makes a compelling case that SOA could be a real asset in a down economy, and along the way, he offers concrete recommendations about how to proceed with SOA without a huge, upfront financial commitment.


Schmelzer contends that SOA does not need to be risky. The key is to take small steps and measure the results as you go, he says:

You can get immediate benefits from SOA by simply building one Service that is broadly consumed in the organization and, more importantly, addresses a key business process problem relating to change. How do you know that a problem is worth solving in a Service-oriented way? If you can identify a continuous cost or time consumption associated with changing that business process in any respect.

My favorite piece of advice from the article is for funding SOA projects. Schmelzer suggests you start by focusing on one business process and use SOA to improve it:

...you can simply offer the business to recover the costs by improving the business process and using those recovered funds to reinvest in the enterprise architecture, starting the cycle again. How would a cost-recovery approach to SOA budgeting work? The key is to start with the smallest business process you can find that is the most inefficient, where the inefficiency is caused by an aspect of continuous change (a lack of agility) and the business is nevertheless forced to continue to invest in that inefficient business process.

That's a really smart concept, and if I thought everyone would follow Schmezler's advice, then I'd be more inclined to agree that SOA could get a big boost from a down economy. The bloggers and the analysts will just have to wait and see. But for those of you in the driver's seat, definitely check out Schmelzer's article, particularly if you're considering abandoning SOA -- or embracing it - because of the economic turmoil.