Which Costs More: Staff or Middleware?

Loraine Lawson

I follow a lot of SOA discussions that, for various reasons, I don't write about on this blog. First, this isn't an SOA blog; it's an integration blog, and I've got to represent, you know: Keep it real, and so on. Second, sometimes these discussions are just too niche for this blog's audience. Third-and this is actually the most likely reason-often the discussions are rehashing old issues already covered here.


But occasionally, one of these conversations takes an unexpected and surprisingly useful turn.


And that's just what happened with a recent discussion about Guerrilla SOA-or, as ZapThink calls it, a "zero middleware approach to SOA" - written by IT consultant John Moe.


Moe points out that there are "a number of alternative gurus offering to make SOA once more a simple, affordable option," and he groups these "gurus" into four types:

  1. People who think SOA is synonymous with Web Services
  2. Agile Developers, who, if you're not careful, will wind up creating application-sized services
  3. SaaS and PaaS vendors, who offer you SOA on a piece-by-piece, "rentable" basis
  4. Vendors who "sell you SOA"


Actually, it's a pretty humorous read, with lots of not-so-subtle barbs. For instance, Moe says this about vendors who try to sell you SOA:


"Many of them have ingenious software tools that can assist you, and they invariable have a pitch that goes something like this: 'Buy our tool and you won't need to buy anything else to do SOA", or words to that effect. The point tool vendors are trying to pull a fast one here: either their tool is only part of the Service Oriented Infrastructure you will need, or it is so big that they will want the $250M I mentioned above for it."


Now, I read that and I focus on the moral of the story, which is that you can't buy SOA. But other, more engineering-minded people read it a bit differently, and that's where the brouhaha began.


On Yahoo's SOA Group, the vice president and chief technologist for SOA at Oracle, David Chappell, took umbrage with that $250 million figure and responded thusly:


"My employer (Oracle) would be quite happy if $250M for every SOA project in a large company went towards our middleware. However that's just not the case. The cost of the middleware is just a small fraction of the total project spend regardless of the size and scope. The argument being put forth here has no basis because its based on an incorrect assumption.


"The greater cost of any project, whether SOA or otherwise, is the people time. I would argue that trying to do a project based on SOA principles without middleware is just wasting more time reinventing wheels that get built into proprietary frameworks that have to be maintained over time, or worse just left behind by the 'Guerrilla' consultants."


Of course, Oracle sells middleware, so they would say that, wouldn't they?


Jim Webber, who coined the term Guerrilla SOA (not to be confused with Gorilla SOA, naturally), took umbrage at Chappell's umbrage, attacking both the cost question and the framework question.


The cost question interested me more, because-well, you see, there's this recession on. And to prove his point about that, Webber shared a personal anecdote about a company that would've spent over 10 million (approximately $16.6 million) on middleware in upfront costs. Instead, it hired Webber's guerrilla SOA team, and the total cost came in around 1,000,000 (approximately $1.7 million). Which led Webber to this conclusion:


"If Dave's point is accurate, that people cost more than software, then the minimum cost for the middleware solution would be 20,000,001 (approximately $33.21 million), or around 20 the cost of the Guerrilla approach. And that doesn't even account for the revenue lost (or risk) with big-bang deployments as opposed to rapid release models. But I'm nice like that, so I'll let it slide - 20x is already a substantial enough differential."


And then again, since Webber's in the SOA consultant business, he would say that, wouldn't he?


Of course, it didn't end there. Steve Jones, who I'm 95 percent sure (based on the e-mail listed) is the same Steve Jones who's CapGemini's CTO for Application Development Transformation, suggested that anybody who'd spend that much on middleware was ... well, I think I'll just quote him here:


"But seriously if someone is spending $10m on middleware upfront then that person is a complete and utter idiot. I'm really struggling to think of someone who has _upfront_ spent that much on middleware, hell I'm struggling to think of somewhere that has spent that much in total outside of organisations whose total spend is way over $500m a year on IT alone. ... The bit in Jim's post that he doesn't consider is that there were idiots involved in the $10m decision.... and right now my money would be on that."




Fortunately, for our purposes, it doesn't matter how much that company spent on middleware-what matters is how much you would spend on middleware versus paying a consultant or your staff to build a from-scratch SOA. It's certainly worth considering, if you're just starting on the SOA path.


But once you've run the numbers, you might want to consider the other, perhaps equally important, question that's being more subtly debated in this Guerrilla SOA discussion: Whom do you trust more: SOA consultants or SOA product vendors?


And that's a question most analysts and bloggers wouldn't touch with an ESB, no matter how much or little it costs.

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