IBM Keeps the Drum Beating for SOA

Mar.21.07 | About: International Business (IBM)

I wrote on March 14 about the way in which IBM (NYSE:IBM) is building its software marketing message (and fall-back corporate strategy) around the term, service oriented architecture [SOA]. I noted that IBM is promoting the idea that SOA is a business strategy—as opposed to what the words literally mean—and that that approach would be a challenge. I also said that if anyone could make the illogical transition, it would be IBM. IBM could make it happen with March Madness and Spring Golf Tour advertising.

Now it appears that IBM has other means up its sleeves as well, including sponsoring—along with Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), SAP (NYSE:SAP), and BEA (BEAS)—a new user advocacy group called the SOA Consortium. The SOA Consortium held a kick off meeting for the press and analysts on March 20 (recording of the web cast will be available somewhere on their web site).

Technically SOA refers to:

• layering a 10-year-old service-level-agreement mechanism (“the contract”)
• on top of the decades-old concepts of set-theory-based object-oriented polymorphism, encapsulation and inheritance (at the kickoff, Richard Soley, executive director of the SOA consortium, noted that he first heard the term SOA in 1972)
• in a 20-year-old client/server relationship

The age of the technology is not bad because it takes time for an emerging technology to mature. Prudent users do not wish to be on the bleeding edge. However, to some analysts that research SOA, the slightly more modern Internet and service bus (for connecting “loosely coupled” objects) technologies are also required to make it truly SOA.

But Soley emphasized this consortium is not about the connector meaning of SOA (or other ‘ancient’ similar concepts such as remote procedure calls, object request brokers, or anything else technological). Brenda Michelson (truth in advertising: Brenda also blogs with me at was also on the kick-off panel because she ran a series of focus groups that identified five hot buttons among CIOs and CTOs concerning SOA.

The insights follow. My short descriptions makes them sound a little self-evident but the complete explanation, available by listening to the web cast, is very useful if you are investing in anyone betting on the SOA concept, either way (as a technical concept or as IBM is defining it):

• SOA=BPM=lean=six sigma to the C-level IT execs Brenda talked to. That makes sense but that doesn’t make SOA a business strategy in my opinion.
• Business and IT cooperation will be required to make it happen, culminating in a portfolio of services (as I constantly preach: what good is an ESB without ES’s?). In reality users don’t need SOA to make this happen technically but since all IT infrastructure is migrating to SOA over the next 15 years anyways, the portfolio (also often called a repository) will be SOA based.
• SOA must permeate the IT department starting with enterprise architects that do the portfolio planning that leads to finding shared services and instituting a composite applications environment. Again, not SOA dependent but SOA will force it to happen in a way the CASE of the 1990s did not.
• The CIOs and CTOs Brenda talked to said the supporting operational issues (change management, versioning and testing) were way behind the SOA theory and the portfolio concept. This is common in all technology adoption.
• Of most interest from an IT investment perspective, the CIO and CTO focus groups said SOA would cause a fundamental market change for packaged application providers. In the last generation, suppliers gave away the platform (e.g., ABAP, PeopleTools) to sell the application modules (R/3, PeopleSoft HR). Users say they expect application developers to do the opposite this time around: give them the services (SAP ESA) if they acquire the SOA platform (NetWeaver).

In summary, despite the business strategy concept preached by the new group, the insights in my opinion were all technological (but interesting and actionable). I think the SOA Consortium—perhaps because of IBM’s sponsorship—is trying to overcome the common use of the words “services” and “architecture” in trying to position SOA as a business strategy. The better analogy in my opinion is to compare two eras:

• 1995: client/server is to business process re-engineering (where have you gone, Michael Hammer?)
• 2010: service oriented architecture is to business process management or ??? TBD

But IBM is emphasizing SOA over BPM. That was also true of BEA in 2004 and 2005 but the pendulum in San Jose swung back to BPM in 2006 with BEA’s acquisition of Fuego. Cisco and SAP seem to be along for the ride and a chance to talk to users at the focus groups because neither has a lot of skin in the term SOA and SAP seems to want to move to SaaS (again, because it is inevitable anyways, SaaS business models will be built on SOA technologies as well)

But as I said on March 14, if IBM puts enough marketing muscle behind its meaning….

(As an aside, if you recognize Sole’s name, he is also director of the Object Management Group [OMG] and the SOA Consortium is run by the OMG. Although vendor sponsored, he will work to make it a user advocacy group in which he hopes to get users, small, large and government. It’s a closed end operation slated to go out of business in 2010.)