Vendors release SOA programming model

Service component architecture is the new SOA-related standard that has just been launched

A group of top software vendors recently gathered to unveil a new specification they hope will simplify application development within SOA (services-oriented architecture) environments.

Service component architecture (SCA) aims to create another layer that separates the business logic of an IT infrastructure from the underlying applications and middleware.

BEA Systems executive Bill Roth, who writes a company blog aimed at developers, describes SCA as “a deployment descriptor on steroids” that will work with any programming language, not just Java.

SCA’s backers include BEA, IBM, SAP, Oracle and Siebel, among others. A key component of SCA is the service data objects (SDO) specification, a blueprint IBM and BEA drafted several years ago. SDO helps programmers access and manipulate data from heterogeneous sources, including relational databases, XML data sources and enterprise applications.

“There’s been a lot of buzz about web services but the programming necessary to utilise those technologies has been very primitive so far,” says Ed Cobb, BEA’s vice president of standards and architecture. “One of the goals we had with SCA was to make it easier to build real services in programming languages like Java and C++”.

One noteworthy aspect of the SCA announcement is the lineup of vendors backing it. Every major ERP vendor is involved, along with middleware giants IBM and BEA. Java creator Sun Microsystems is one glaring omission on the list of SCA sponsors, but executives involved in the specification’s creation say they’re talking with Sun and expect it to be involved in SCA’s development.

“We’re past the point of companies being able to have the luxury of deciding whether or not to do an SOA,” says ZapThink analyst Ron Schmelzer. “It’s very clear that’s the direction all of those vendors are going.”

BEA’s Cobb offers an example to illustrate how SCA can help companies advance their SOA work. Imagine a firm that specialises in personal insurance. It decides to buy a company that focuses on auto insurance. The personal insurance company writes its applications in Java, runs them against a relational database and uses call centres and a network of direct sales agents to tap new customers. The auto insurance specialist is a C++ shop that primarily sells through the web and relies on XML data storage. Integrating two such disparate IT environments would be a nightmare, but with a services approach each can continue running its own systems.

“You take services from each of the systems using SCA to compose them together, so [the company] can use the best pieces of each of the technologies, and you use SDO to share data between the two systems,” Cobb says. “The net result is a more comprehensive system.”

In a statement, BEA says: “SDO complements SCA by providing a common way to access many different kinds of data. The specification reduces the skill levels and time required to access and manipulate business data, according to BEA. Today a multitude of APIs are used to manipulate data and tend to tightly couple the source and target of the data, making their use error-prone and subject to breaking as business requirements evolve. SDO makes it easier to use and realise the value of these APIs without having to code directly to them.”

SCA’s backers eventually plan to submit the specification to a standards body, although that’s probably a good way off as SCA is new and remains in draft form, says IBM vice president of software standards Karla Norsworthy. Still, SCA’s backers plan to push forward on use of the specification. IBM will have code for developer experimentation available on its website within weeks, Norsworthy says.

Interarbor Solutions principal analyst Dana Gardner says SCA is a “logical next step” as vendors increasingly adopt a standards-and-services approach. But he questions how effective yet more standards and integration technologies will be in helping customers.

“If every three years enterprises need to swallow yet another level of integration complexity, and a new approach to simplifying that complexity, then when are they finally going to say, ‘Hey, I want to get off this merry-go-round’?” Gardner asks.

He expects an increasing number of companies, particularly smaller ones, will take advantage of the integration opportunities web services afford to build linked systems, but says they will probably outsource the work of handling the underlying applications to hosted software vendors like Salesforce.com, which has made significant headway in the CRM market.

“If we keep applying technology to the level where everything becomes a service that’s easily orchestrated we get to the point where it makes sense to punt — dump the underlying technology, outsource and manage the applications as services,” Gardner says.

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