Can SOA pick up where ERP leaves off?

Construction management company finds multiple ERP systems aren't enough; turns to SOA

Last month, I ran a piece that generated a lot of discussion, quoting Bruce Richardson's prediction that SOA would usurp many of the functions that now sit at the application level in ERP systems

Sometimes, ERP may seem like too much, but other times, believe it or not, it's not enough. Recently, I had the chance to talk with Rich Colton, application integration manager with Washington Group International, who has spent a good part of his career around ERP systems.  (A summary of the interview and Washington's SOA effort is posted over at my blog at ebizQ, which presents SOA success stories.)

The interesting thing about the SOA effort at Washington Group -- a construction management company -- is that there really wasn't a single ERP system that could handle the firm's wide range of projects and needs. The company does everything from building dams and bridges to demilitarizing weapons stockpiles. Washington has an array of legacy systems and silos resulting from mergers, and even the big systems such as SAP and Oracle had all the capabilities that were needed.

"We have not found an ERP system that meets the engineering/construction industry's requirements," Colton says. "Several have tried, including both Oracle and SAP. We found they really didn't offer the kinds of products that we need in different areas, such as project management, project controls, estimating, or materials management. We ended up having to use the best of breed in different areas. Up until now, it's required a lot of duplication, triplication, and more, of information from one system to another."

The only effective solution was to abstract a lot of the various functions into a common service layer, built mainly with Java EE running in Oracle Fusion middleware.  However, while Colton believes that SOA can augment ERP, he doesn't see it as a replacement for ERP. In fact, companies with enterprise ERP deployments may not need SOA. "I have a long history of managing and maintaining manufacturing systems," he points out. "I think there are some very good ERP systems for some companies that will never really need SOA capabilities. By and large, their ERP system is meeting their needs."

But, he adds, some complex operations will need SOA to bring diverse environments together, he adds. "There certainly are companies that have different kinds of requirements in terms of their manufacturing environments, and no single ERP system is going to manage them across the breadth of their markets."