Latest federal 'shared services' strategy is actually SOA redux

SOA is all about not having to reinvent the wheel. So why is the federal government trying to reinvent the wheel to reinstate what already has been learned and developed through SOA over the past decade?
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Many people used to say that service oriented architecture was CORBA and object-oriented programming in a new bottle. Many feel cloud computing is SOA in a new bottle. Now, a former federal enterprise architect says the federal government's newly hatched shared services initiative sounds an awful lot like SOA.

Brad Niemann, former EPA Data Architect. Photo: Semantic Community

Samo-samo... yesterday it was SOA, today it's shared services: Brand Niemann, former EPA Data Architect. Photo: Semantic Community

That's the point raised by Brand Niemann, former senior enterprise architect and data scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, in a recent interview with Federal New Radio's Francis Rose. The problem is, he says, why waste time and resources learning and adapting to this latest initiative, when much of the legwork has already been done with the government's SOA projects?

SOA is all about not having to reinvent the wheel. So why is the federal government trying to reinvent the wheel to reinstate what already has been learned and developed through SOA over the past decade?  "They keep changing the name basically," Niemann says. "It started out as service oriented architecture, now its shared services. But basically, it's to try to get more collaboration going, with common IT needs and requirements. It's sort of the samo-samo. It's just that people keep trying to revive these things periodically without being aware of what's gone on before. It's probably better to sustain things longer than start them afresh."

With the shared services initiative, announced in December 2011, federal agencies are being asked to develop a shared services plan and to identify at least two commodity IT areas for migration to an "intra-agency shared service model" by the end of 2012. The goal is a "federal government that is leaner, more agile and more efficient. Leveraging commodity IT services at the department level within agencies presents quick win opportunities, and is typically less complex to implement and easier to manage than efforts between agencies."

All good stuff, of course. But Niemann points out that this kind of work has been conducted all along, since SOA initiatives were launched more than six years ago with the Federal CIO Council. For example, the FAA adopted an open enterprise service bus, and there have been more than 1,000 investments in shared services projects for federal human resources management projects. "And I'm sure there were other efforts before that," he adds.

Take a look at the key goals of the federal shared service plan and decide for yourself how much it resembles SOA:

  • Standardization: "Shared service providers must leverage consistent standards that streamline functions across the Federal Government. This enables communication, data sharing and function use across all agencies. It eliminates the use of decentralized and inconsistent resources to create new, unique solutions throughout agencies in response to a single set of Federal requirements.
  • Visibility: "A government-wide shared services catalog helps agencies discover the wide array of available services. This enhances the potential for service integration as some agencies will develop shared services for those functions not already being provided.
  • Reusability: "Shared services harness a way to support duplicated agency functions throughout the mission areas. This reduces the potential for development and maintenance costs by using repeatable services."
  • Platform independence: "Agencies no longer need to worry about integrating with their current platforms in-house. Shared services providers ensure a stable infrastructure and can manage systems changes and updates within a controlled environment."
  • Extensibility: "The basic shared services of a provider can be used as building blocks for other services that consumer agencies need. Services can be scaled up or down, based on demand."
  • Location transparency: "Users of shared services access the services from anywhere within the shared service network. This increases availability and end user access to strengthen SLAs between the provider and the services consumer."
  • Reliability: "Services provided are robust and stable with service continuity capabilities to minimize critical system outages to levels established by SLAs."

Niemann also wrote an article outlining his concerns that the shared services initiative duplicates the SOA work that already has been accomplished.

"Perhaps our new US CIO Steven VanRoekel would accept a standing invitation from the Federal SOA Council and MITRE to learn first hand what we have been doing over the past six years to foster shared services across the federal government," he concludes.

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