Q&A: SOA Challenges for SMBs

SOA often sneaks into an environment as part of a packaged solution within SMBs.

SOA has many benefits for large enterprises, but often in small and mid-size companies the technology is introduced as part of a packaged application.

I discussed SOA and SMBs with Avigdor Luttinger, vice president of corporate strategy for Magic Software, a provider of application platform and business process integration solutions.

Enterprise Systems: How does the approach to SOA differ between large companies and SMBs?

Avigdor Luttinger: Among the key points: SMBs are solution-driven and usually do not engage in SOA projects aimed at improving the infrastructure. When they are faced with integration issues, they weigh the alternatives of a point-to-point integration against a service-driven solution, and increasingly opt for SOA in this scope. Although many large companies have similar attitude, the leading ones -- who have larger IT departments with enterprise architects -- do engage explicitly in SOA projects as part of their lifecycle management.

What SOA benefits are driving its adoption? What does it allow companies to do?

SOA improves the return on investment in IT assets. It extends the life of legacy applications, facilitates the reuse of software, and serves as a backbone for extended business processes and composite applications. It also improves data consistency and quality by eliminating redundant processes and data stores.

An excellent example is the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for the State of Washington, which provides information systems services to all Washington state courts, including Superior Court Juvenile Departments. AOC used four applications to record and process information on each juvenile in their system. These programs -- the Judicial Information System (JIS), the Superior Court Management Information System (SCOMIS), The Juvenile Information System (JUVIS), all mainframe-based applications and the Court Automated Proceedings and Scheduling System (CAPS), a Web application -- needed to be integrated and simplified to enable customers to decrease duplicate data-entry time, to provide a single consolidated view of as much pertinent information about a youth as possible, and for professionals working on a case to access information easily.

AOC senior project manager Alan J. Erickson and his team were challenged to develop a Web-based solution with strict security and the ability to facilitate statewide customers. Working in partnership with Magic Software, Erickson and his AOC project team developed the Juvenile and Corrections System (JCS). According to Erickson, “Implementation of the AOC’s Juvenile and Corrections Integration (JCI) Project gives juvenile court customers access to a Web application (JCS) that demonstrates the business value of statewide application and data integration with other cornerstone AOC legal case management systems. Juvenile Court referral and detention records are now integrated in a single view with Superior Court legal case activity and information recorded by County Clerks. Data entered by County Clerks in JIS, SCOMIS, and JIS Calendaring can be reused rather than recreated by Juvenile Court staff in JCS or JIS Calendaring.”

Building on the SOA foundation laid by the JCS project, AOC can now develop new applications and functions in a fraction of the time and cost it took before. “Once Juvenile Department statewide business requirements are agreed upon by stakeholder customers and a known commodity, the technology underlying JCS enables the AOC project team to develop new screens and reports in 3-4 days versus 2-4 weeks using older technology.”

What are the hurdles to SOA adoption?

It is often said that SOA is a journey, not a destination. SOA requires an architectural approach, a view of the entire information system and of its components. It requires discipline in the systematic use of services, and it requires a joint buy-in of the entire organization – business and IT. It takes longer to provide results to the first issues that trigger its adoption, making the life of its proponents harder… SMB’s who have a serial view of their IT issues are often intimidated by these requirements.

How do companies overcome these hurdles?

Having a business case that justifies by itself the initial project.

What are the “gotchas” or things an enterprise might not anticipate or be aware of in an SOA project?

In the SMB market, SOA may be just one way to approach the problem; it need not be the only way. SOA is not the same thing as Web Service enablement. SOA attempts to normalize business services, and this is not always present in SMB objectives. The experience accumulated in the recent years from SOA projects suggests strongly that a SOA Competency Center, which drives the whole approach, is a key success factor and the main differentiator between satisfaction and disappointment.

What best practices can you recommend for any enterprise when approaching SOA?

Some level of a SOA Competency Center is a must. Since it is an on-going effort and practice, a dedicated headcount is also required. There are some similarities between the early days of DBAs and the SCC. Since SOA is an architectural and methodological approach that aims to streamline and structure the enterprise (IT) architecture, it requires someone that sees the whole picture and can provide the vision and the supervision. This could be a single person or a team depending on the size of the organization and its domain.

IT organizations are under pressure to meet aggressive launch timeframes and at the same time must fulfill the stringent SLAs of existing operations. Bringing an organizational mind-shift such as SOA is next to impossible with those types of pressures. Ideally, there should be an entity that focuses on bringing about this change and a structure to manage it effectively.

For example, it would oversee the end-to-end business solution and define the granularity of shared services (applications, process, infrastructure, business, etc.) and their integration/interaction. The SCC is also the source of knowledge -- what SOA is all about, its relevance to what it promises to change in the organization, and various technological options that it has to explore. This can start minimally as a single position -- which needs the empowerment and resources to focus on its task and get the organization to work with it.

It is beyond the scope of our conversation to go into more details, and I recommend for a concrete approach to do some related Web research, which contains excellent resources on SOA introduction.

Also, as in many projects, a small step approach is best once the big picture is drawn and clear. Obviously, start where the expected benefit is highest and the risk lowest. In the JCS case described above, it was initially developed as a pilot project integrating and exposing the existing applications and resources. The Web-based front-end was then developed and began performing in two counties, and after successful acceptance was enhanced and rolled out statewide.

What products does Magic Software offer in the area of SOA?

In fact, Magic Software’s entire technology stack is SOA compliant. We have two product lines that are based on the stack, and target different markets segments: iBOLT is an Integration Centric BPMS, and is used a lot as a SOA Backbone. It is also very popular for the integration of data and processes around Enterprise Applications, in particular SAP, Salesforce.com and Oracle JDE.

uniPaaS is a unique application platform capable of delivering advanced RIA and SaaS Web applications through a unified development paradigm that incorporates all aspects of the development and deployment process. The same application can also be deployed as Desktop or Client/Server. uniPaaS is able to manage all the setting and controlling of the Client side and Server side logic, in addition to the communication between the Client and the Server, and the consumption and manipulation of back-end services -- all within a single development project and paradigm. It embeds iBOLT at its backend, providing BPM-driven SaaS and multitenancy management as well as business integration services.