Point-to-point integration "has crippled the health and flexibility of most IT architectures by creating a cobweb of hundreds, even thousands, of brittle linkages that have to be torn apart and reassembled every time one of the applications changes," according to an excellent piece in CIO Magazine by Christopher Koch.
In a recent survey in the magazine, integration was even listed as the top technology concern of CIOs. Fortunately, we are now witnessing the emergence of "a new, winning strategy that promises to blow away the cobwebs and radically improve IT's responsiveness (while also reducing integration costs). It is the integration layer, a virtual stratum in the architecture that is composed of two major pieces: messaging and services."
The integration layer of messaging and services lies between the presentation layer (which faces the user) and the data layer (which houses the data).
The messaging element is responsible for "translating, routing and monitoring information from different systems without these systems needing to connect directly." However, messsaging is IT-oriented, not business-oriented. That's where services emerge -- the other element of the integration layer. "The idea behind services is simple: Technology should be expressed as a unit of business work—like "get credit," or "find customer record"—rather than as an arcane application such as ERP or CRM. This is an old concept, based on object-oriented programming from the '80s. Services extract pieces of data and business logic from systems and databases around the company and bundle them together into chunks that are expressed in business terms."
This is where a service-oriented architecture (SOA) comes into play -- described in this piece as "the blueprint that guides the development of the integration layer...An SOA is the big picture of all the business processes and flows of a company. It means businesspeople can visualize, for the first time, how their businesses are constructed in terms of their technology."
Randy Heffner, vice president for Forrester Research, explains that that the integration layer enables "a change in business policy [to] be made quickly rather than opening up an application project...With business services, you are saying you are designing the business, and the design is too important to leave to ad hoc implementation teams working on a deadline."
Toby Redshaw, Motorola's corporate vice president for corporate IT strategy, architecture and e-business, says that integration costs have been cut by a factor of 10 in some cases using this approach.
However, the integration layer demands centralized IT management. As Rick Sweeney, chief architect for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, explains: "SOA isn't a technology; it's a framework, a blueprint, and if you don't have control over it and aren't guaranteeing that it's being applied across the organization, you'll never have a true SOA. There are probably a million ways to architect an integration layer, but you can't have a thousand different ways inside your company."