Small companies don't have time for SOA

How does a two-and-a-half-person IT operation adopt SOA?

You hear it constantly from vendors -- the SMB market (small to medium-size businesses) is where it's at, baby. This is especially the mantra we're hearing more and more in the service-oriented space. IBM talks SMB for new SOA deployments, and vendors such as Microsoft and JBoss are purportedly already mining the underserved small business space.

How does a two-person IT operation adopt SOA?

But, let's face it -- are small companies really equipped in terms of capacity and time to pursue SOA methodologies?

On some level, SOA opens doors of opportunity for very small businesses to coalesce and offer their own as well as Other People's Services. I talk a lot in this blogsite about the opportunities for small vendors and service brokers to offer components of applications. And the fact that businesses are becoming both consumers and suppliers of SOA and Web services. However, the most likely SMB adopters of SOA may be that technically oriented small companies -- such as a software vendor -- that will effortlessly latch onto the service-oriented economy.

Joe's Shower Curtain Ring Company down the street may not be willing or able to pursue SOA as we know it. Maybe Web services to some degree, but not SOA. The latest Nucleus Research survey (reported yesterday) confirms this -- only 15 percent of companies with fewer than 100 employees have SOA efforts underway, compared to 35 percent in companies with more than 500 employees. I survey I conducted with Webservices.Org a couple of years back found, in fact, that there wasn't an appreciable rise in Web services deployments until we hit the 10,000-employee mark in companies. ZDNet Larry Dignan also alluded to the fact that SMBs were a "tough nut" for larger software providers such as SAP and Oracle to crack.

Just the other week, I spoke with the IS manager of a building construction parts company with about 500 employees and $30 million a year in revenues -- a very typical SMB. The manager said there were two people in his department, admitting that he had about "two hours a day" to devote to IT issues -- he was actually an product designer by trade, and devoted the bulk of his time to company projects.

As he put it: "My main criteria for whatever software or hardware device I employ has to be 'set it and forget it.' I can’t spend a lot of time of maintenance time and oversight. The few things that I demand, it’s got to be hands-off, it’s got to be largely automatic."

In other words, this manager is not going to be spending his time writing BPEL scripts, generating managed code for a .NET container, or fussing with an ESB installation anytime soon. I could see him tapping into a Software-as-a-Service provider, perhaps to better facilitate integration with business partners. But SOA is no where on the radar screen for a low-overhead company such as this -- and this is quite representative of the SMB market.

Such is the challenge when we talk about SOA moving into the SMB space. Large companies are highly structured, with strong integration needs -- and large IT staffs. But how do you sell SOA to SMBs with little or no IT staff at all?