SOA benefits need spelling out: users

Service-oriented architecture can work wonders, but only if implementations are properly planned, according to attendees at a recent forum

For many companies, the move to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) can yield substantial rewards, including reduced operating costs and better customer service. But those benefits only show up after companies work through thorny problems such as obtaining executive buy-in, shifting the way development groups operate and hammering out sometimes contentious new business rules.

Those are some observations made by SOA users at last month’s Enterprise Architecture Practitioners Conference, held by The Open Group in San Diego.

(The Open Group is a vendor-neutral body that promotes open standards and interoperability).

At Marriott International Hotels, for example, SOA has been identified as one of the company’s three strategic technology platforms, along with business intelligence and commercial off-the-shelf software, noted John Whitridge, Marriott’s vice president of enterprise architecture. The company has tapped SOA to help shorten development times and pull more value from legacy systems.

“One of the primary benefits of SOA is to get our solutions to market faster and anticipate and respond to competitive threats quicker,” Whitridge said. “We’re not taking SOA as a rip-and-replace strategy. We’re trying to figure out how to use what we have and enhance it.”

To that end, Marriott is working to mitigate some of the challenges a move toward an SOA can bring, he said. Last year, the company revived its enterprise architecture group — which had dissolved because it was only staffed with employees dedicated to it part-time — to lead the SOA effort, Whitridge said. The company’s enterprise architecture team linked the benefits of an SOA to Marriott’s corporate strategies of becoming more agile and growing.

The group also designed a “maturity model”, essentially a roadmap that outlines the principles and guidelines for an SOA plan and highlights some of the incremental benefits expected along the way. “It is very easy for IT people to say, ‘Give me money and you will get benefits,’” Whitridge said.

“[But] if you are doing cost avoidance ... how do you show you are 50% cheaper? Make the SOA journey be something the business buys into.”

Financial management software maker Intuit is relying on SOA to enable it to absorb new acquisitions more quickly and to more easily integrate data related to customers and processes, said Robert Roth, its director of shared development and services. After 25 acquisitions, Intuit found itself with customer interaction across more channels than it ever had, and it needed ways to move data across the company quickly, Roth said.

Intuit has relied on the SOA to integrate data and create a single point of reference about customers, partners or anyone with whom the company interacts. In addition, the SOA is the foundation for a single interface that can accept orders from multiple channels for Intuit products and feed the order information to three different ERP systems.

While these SOA projects have been a success, developing them came with challenges, Roth said. It was difficult for Intuit to get a single set of business rules — such as a common definition of a customer — associated with the SOA.

For these and other challenges where the SOA planners struggled to get a complete consensus Intuit relied on a “shared vision”, where all employees key to a decision agreed.

“Many of these solutions were implemented where not everyone in the company agreed on the outcome, but the core stakeholders did,” Roth said.

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