A virtual world

For some, service-oriented architecture (SOA) has been promoted as the answer to all business’s software prayers. Rob Hailstone, software infrastructure practice director at analyst firm Butler Group, has a different message: SOA will transform the way IT systems are built in the near-term, but it is virtualised IT environments that are key to reshaping business.

To understand the business benefits of SOA and be able to separate the promise from the hype, IT decision-makers need to understand why the industry has so enthusiastically embraced SOA, says Hailstone.

Speaking at the Future of Software 2006 conference, Hailstone explained that one of the driving forces was the inexorable pace of business change. Historically, IT has not been good at responding to change quickly, he said. “What may be a small change to the business may be a big problem for IT.”

In today’s world, this creates a problem for the business: investing in IT looks risky. Furthermore, if a business’ IT infrastructure does not cope well with change, that business will struggle to reach its potential. In an age when business priorities are shifting, the need to be more responsive, and the ability to exploit those quick responses, are becoming paramount.

Also, IT has been seen solely as a tool to drive down costs. “You get to the point where you can’t cut costs any further without damaging your ability to do business,” says Hailstone.

Rob Hailstone

Rob Hailstone has over 30 years’ industry experience and joined Butler Group in October 2006 as software infrastructure practice director. His areas of expertise include service-oriented architecture (SOA), composite application platforms, business process automation and web services. Previously, Hailstone was director of IDC’s European service-oriented architecture and application platforms service.

Virtual reality

However, new technologies are beginning to help the IT department redefine its corporate profile. One of the most appealing aspects of a technology such as virtualisation is that instead of having to seek funding for every new project taken on, the CIO can use virtualisation to do “more with the resources you’ve already got”, says Hailstone.

Through decoupling the link between an application and a server, and creating a virtual or ‘generic’ pool of computing resource, virtualisation has enabled businesses to improve utilisation rates, improving performance.

Similarly, service-oriented architecture can be thought of as a virtual computing environment – and deliver equally impressive results.

Through the reuse of elements of existing applications, service-oriented architecture, like virtualisation, seemingly offers advantages without necessarily adding too greatly to the cost. The ability to build loosely-coupled self-describing, autonomous services from a pool of existing elements of applications, offers a tantalising vision of making IT more responsive to business needs – and change.

But as with so many utopian visions, reality proves less glamorous. To date, SOA remains firmly in its infancy, says Hailstone. Business leaders – already burnt by the trials of ERP implementations and the early hysteria over the Internet – remain sceptical over its promise: “There is a concern that a lot of money is going to disappear into thin air.”

And despite all the bluster over service-oriented architecture, there are still precious few examples of it to act as a reference point for others. The skills and understanding necessary to develop an end-to-end SOA remain in short supply, says Hailstone.

Of course, SOA is not currently being demanded by the business – it is simply just one of many different initiatives to create more value from IT investment through virtualisation. Service-oriented architecture needs to be understood in the wider context of industry trends such as software-as-a-service, business process outsourcing and the development of the mobile enterprise, says Hailstone. SOA provides the glue which enables businesses to bind together hosted applications and outsourced services within high-level business process models, he explains.

Smart businesses, he says, will then mitigate the risk associated with the investment by introducing implementation methodologies which are closely aligned to the company’s business priorities, making use of external examples of best practice from peer groups, vendors and system integrators.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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