SOA value may be best demonstrated by focusing on the applications

Cape Clear Software's announcement this week of embedding a business activity monitoring (BAM) solution into the Cape Clear ESB platform smacks of a renewed focus on the applications' value, as a way of then seeding demand for the appropriate back-end infrastructure. We seem to have lost our way on SOA evangelism so far, with an ongoing focus on the back-end infrastructure first, with then the promise of better applications and services, someday, some way, to come.

Perhaps if a savvy political operative were designing the best go-to-market campaign for SOA they would proclaim: "It's the applications, stupid!"

Focusing on the applications -- and not the means to achieving them -- has served computing well over the decades. I recall trying to run a global newsroom -- with some 15 reporters at seven distributed bureaus from London to Taipei -- during a Boston-based home-office-wide PC upgrade back in 1994. We were running client/server apps like Lotus Notes and client DOS-based applications to access the oft-times frustrating GE Global Network (our pre-Internet use WAN). And we were doing the usual personal productivity apps like XyWrite (I miss it) and Lotus apps (miss them too) before MS Office was at all popular, as well as NetWare print-and-file services.

The boss (and company IT maven), one Rob Garretson, then-editor in chief of the IDG News Service, picked IBM's OS/2 for the operating system upgrade from DOS 5 (shell) and early Windows across more than a dozen PCs supporting our real-time news collection, editing, and distribution duties. OS/2 seemed great in planning, with it's multi-tasking benefit to reduce memory-leak (and other) crashes. Problem was, the applications we needed most did not run well, and often crashed the OS more than in the old DOS shell.

This is an old and deep can of worms, of why DOS and Windows applications were haphazard on OS/2, but the point was in the heat of business battle -- it was the applications that determined how we made business decisions. I needed to move boat-loads of copy, fast. Crashes were killing us. We ended up, reluctantly-but-swiftly, swapping out OS/2 for the latest Windows, and then on to Windows 3.3, and on and on. The business people, in this case, me, didn't care what the underlying platform, network, or object model was -- we wanted our apps to run. Microsoft did very well by this logic; still does.

Which brings us back to SOA. Cape Clear Software's announcement this week of embedding a business activity monitoring (BAM) solution into the Cape Clear ESB platform smacks of a renewed focus on the applications' value, as a way of then seeding demand for the appropriate back-end infrastructure. We seem to have lost our way on SOA evangelism so far, with an ongoing focus on the back-end infrastructure first, with then the promise of better applications and services, someday, some way, to come.

An ESB, as Cape Clear demonstrates, offers some great benefits when it comes to visibility into wide and deep business activities. You could think of BAM then as a next-generation business productivity application (and not even mention SOA). SOA- and BPEL-empowered BAM, to me, is only the beginning of a new class of highly productive and powerful applications and business-benefits functions that were not really possible (or too costly or complex) without SOA as a supporting framework and methodology.

Yet the talk has too often fallen back to the business process management (BPM) nirvana that SOA will provide, but even that is too nebulous, with more "soft" than "hard" ROI benefits. Let's focus anew on the tangible, clear business benefits of business applications so that the line of business managers can demand -- and get -- their uniquely SOA-enabled applications.

It's now clear, SOA needs a better market driver. As former BEA and HP IT and marketing executive Jeff Pendleton recently said on a BriefingsDirect SOA Insights podcast:

"When I looked at SOA and talked to a lot of customers we were all in agreement that SOA was very, very disruptive, and in fact probably will be the defining element of the 21st-century enterprise. But for some reason we weren’t able to bring that message to the line-of-business guy, who still had this parochial, or somewhat skeptical, view of IT. They just weren’t hearing and understanding the potential.

"...One of the things that we’ve noticed is that the vendor community is preaching to the choir for the most part. They’re talking about the power of SOA to folks who kind of understand the potential of SOA," said Pendleton. "But when you go to the people that really need to see IT as strategic again we’re delivering messages like 'agility,' 'flexibility,' 'adaptive,' 'liquid,' which are like motherhood and apple pie. The real challenge is telling what it is about SOA that's so disruptive because I’m not sure line-of-business guys are going to care about SOA any more than they cared about client-server during the second wave.

...How do we start to make the potential of SOA a practical and pragmatic strategy? ... Make it something that IT people can bring to the business, so that the business people can say, 'I get it, and what’s more, I can measure it, and I can see how it’s going to affect the various financial statements.' That’s what the industry is struggling with -- to break out of this preaching-to-the-choir marketing and really being able to take these very generalized notions of agility and LEGO-like use and translate them into something that’s consistent with what we saw with the second wave of IT, where we were talking about quality and the customer, and the notion of process core-competencies. We need things that business people can get their heads wrapped around, that are aspirational enough but also practical enough that they can execute over a couple of years," said Pendleton.

Amen. So I propose that the infrastructure industry follow Cape Clear's lead and focus much more on the concrete business benefits of SOA -- and via build, buy, or partner -- lead into the sales with the applications.

Disclosure: Cape Clear is a sponsor of BriefingsDIrect business productivity podcasts.

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