Analyst: why even the best SOAs are 'stalling'

Many companies have implemented 'stunningly beautiful SOA infrastructures,' but have yet to demonstrate how all this infrastructure yields any business value

"It has become clear to me that SOA is not working in most organizations." -Anne Thomas Manes

Many SOAs are 'stunningly beautiful infrastructures,' but have yet to deliver value

When Anne talks, people listen. That's why this line in her latest blog post stood out. Anne has been tracking the integration and SOA business for some time, so I'm sure she would not say something like this lightly. She started off pointing to a heated discussion taking place across the blogosphere based on Ron Schmelzer's latest piece on establishing SOA as an abstraction, not an interface. Anne said she has been following the discussion intently, but concludes that, at the end of the day, "the technology discussion is irrelevant."

The most efficient technology in the world won't come to pass if it doesn't have business support behind it. Anne said she is in the midst of a major research study on SOA adoption, and found even the companies that are far ahead of the pack with service-oriented architectures have not delivered anything of great value to the business yet.

In other words, if SOA practitioners were surgeons, they would be performing flawless operations, but still not fixing the patient.

As Anne put it:

"I've talked to many companies that have implemented stunningly beautiful SOA infrastructures that support managed communications using virtualized proxies and dynamic bindings. They've deployed the best technology the industry has to offer -- including registries, repositories, SOA management, XML gateways, and even the occasional ESB. Many have set up knowledge bases, best practices, guidance frameworks, and governance processes. And yet these SOA initiatives invariably stall out. The techies just can't sell SOA to the business. They have yet to demonstrate how all this infrastructure yields any business value."

The issue, Anne points out, appears to be that SOA is still siloed within the IT organization, and the transformative effects have not yet spread to the business. Line of business managers, she observes, are not ready to share services, the crux of SOA value. Anne says so far, she has only come across one company that has been able to connect SOA success to business success, through the establishment of "strong positive and negative incentives that encourage people to adopt a better attitude toward sharing."

Anne's conclusions fly in the face of other studies and vendor case studies that say companies are seeing some success from their SOA efforts. However, these studies and case studies are projecting tactical successes (such as cutting development time for certain types of interfaces for specific functions), versus more strategic successes that impact the business as a whole.

One thing to keep in mind is the fact that companies shouldn't expect SOA to be an overnight success from a business perspective. In fact, I get a little suspicious of studies or other claims of soaring SOA successes at this early stage in the game.

Is the best route to SOA not in achieving piece by piece, incremental tactical successes, that eventually build support for the effort within the business?

Enterprise SOA is a long-term transformation project. It may take years before businesses start to see these efforts bear fruit, in terms of agility -- meaning the capability to change and adapt and support processes on demand, with little fuss and waiting for IT to build new interfaces or rewrite applications. The other sticking point that it is difficult to capture and measure data related to strategic business benefits. Benefits such as flexibility and agility tend to be squishy, and influenced by other initiatives taking place within the business.

The business side needs to be educated that SOA is a goal worthy of shooting for. And key performance indicators need to be tied into SOA efforts. But SOA is a journey, not a destination, and organizations that expect overnight benefits to the business are bound to be disappointed.