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Philosophical Differences

Philosophical Differences

Zen and the art of service-oriented architecture

Even after 25 years in the IT industry it has taken me a fair amount of time to get my head around the topic of service-oriented architecture (SOA). I have downloaded white papers. I've analyzed research reports. I have investigated implementation tips. I've discussed it with industry colleagues. Eventually though, the truth about just what it is has finally started to dawn on me. I have come to the realization that what we are really talking about here is a philosophy. In fact, I think SOA is the IT equivalent of Buddhism.

You see the aim of both Buddhism and SOA is to put an end to suffering. In the case of SOA this is the exasperation executives feel because of the fragmented nature of business systems in their organization. This disunity hinders their ability to find information. This in turn hampers their capacity to respond quickly and cost-effectively to changing market conditions. Buddhism teaches that it is possible to reach a state of great inner peace and contentment that transcends the trials and tribulations of everyday life. SOA promises business executives more-or-less the same from their IT environment.

With any philosophy you need a leap of faith that what you are doing will be good for the soul. In the case of SOA this faith has to be shown by those who sign the cheques

Buddhism believes that this level of enlightenment is achieved when the four noble truths are fully grasped. SOA also has its key guiding principles: software is built in modules or freestanding units of functional code; these modules are decoupled from hardware platforms through the use of interface standards and Web services, typically, are used to help programs identify and locate the required modules and data. When the Buddhist grasps the four noble truths they achieve nirvana. The nirvana that SOA promises is the elimination of software complexity, reduced software development costs, easier software maintenance, and greater flexibility to help IT respond to changing business circumstances.

However, like Buddhism, the guiding principles do not bring instant gratification. The reality with any philosophy is that it takes time, usually considerable amounts of it, before the potential benefits of adherence can be realized. Moreover, there is no way of objectively telling whether you have actually reached the ultimate destination of the philosophy. Instead you need a leap of faith that what you are doing will be good for the soul. In the case of SOA this faith has to be shown by those who sign the cheques.

Regrettably, I am not sure that much of this is understood by those who hype SOA as the panacea for all IT's current problems. Typically SOA is presented as a product. I read about "killer apps" for SOA. I hear about how to run an SOA pilot. I encounter recent research which reveals that 25 per cent of American CIOs have already begun implementing SOA. Just what are they doing? In my mind I have images of a box with the words Service-Oriented Architecture on the front and a CIO taking out a disk and putting it in the CD drive. I fear that the commitment of these business sponsors will start to waver when they begin to appreciate that the nirvana of SOA is unlikely to materialize any time soon.

The IT industry does not have a good track record with architectures. They have long been promoted as the solution for integrating different computers and applications. Yet reaching this Promised Land is never simple. The world changes, new products are introduced and new requirements materialize. Architecture can quickly become outdated. Even an industry behemoth like IBM eventually moved on from promoting its SNA architecture.

Let me assure you that I am not adverse to the importance of philosophy. I think it helps us get to grips with the complexities and contradictions of the world in which we live. It is just that I'm not sure a philosophy is what the IT industry wants right now. Philosophy won't solve immediate business problems. Furthermore, there is always a danger that someone might exploit the trust of practitioners, something that many IT suppliers have done quite frequently in my 25 years in this industry.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years

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