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Barry O'Reilly
Instead of thinking about service oriented architecture, a concept that is continually defined, redefined, abused and mistreated, perhaps it is time to drop the acronym and consider what we actually need to get the job done.
 
‘Pure’ SOA involves the modeling of an organisation’s processes, the so called ‘Top Down’ approach, followed by the implementation of these processes as services.
 
 
Another approach, more commonly seen in the wild, is the bottom up approach. This usually involves services that simply start popping up in the organization, and SOA in this case is often just an attempt to rein in these services. Such projects, although described as SOA projects for a variety of reasons, have clearly little relation to process driven architecture. Much has been written about these two approaches, with many deciding that a hybrid of both methods is needed to succeed with SOA.
 
These hybrid methods are a sensible compromise, but one gets the feeling that there is too much focus on ‘Succeeding with SOA’. Organisations who focus too much on bottom up development, or who waste too much time and money on top down approaches that don’t produce results, are often recommended to attempt an ‘agile’(Erl) or ‘middle-out’ (Microsoft) approach in order to succeed with SOA.  The problem with recommending this approach is that, in most cases, succeeding with SOA isn’t the aim of the project. If a project is started with the simple aim of ‘Succeeding with SOA’ then the reasons for the projects existence probably need to be questioned.
 
There are a number of things we can be sure of:
·         An organisation will have a number of disparate IT systems
·         Some of these systems will have redundant data and functionality
·         Integration will give considerable ROI
·         Integration will already be under way.
·         Services will already exist in the organisation
·         These services will be inconsistent in their implementation and in their governance
 
So there are three goals here:
1.       Alignment between the business and IT
2.     Integration of disparate systems
3.     Management of services.
 
2 and 3 are going to happen,  in fact they must happen if any degree of return is expected from the IT department. Ignoring 1 is considered a typical mistake in SOA implementations, as it ignores the business implications. However, the business implication of this approach is the money saved in more efficient IT processes. 2 and 3 are ongoing, and they will continue happening, even if a large project to produce a SOA metamodel is started. The result will then be an unstructured cackle of services, and a metamodel that is already going out of date. So we get stuck in and rebuild our services so that they match the metamodel, with the far reaching consequences that this will have on all our LOB systems are current. Lets imagine that this actually works ( how often do we rip and replace working software because it doesn't fit a certain pattern? Never -that's the point of integration), we will now be working with a metamodel that is out of date, and most likely incomplete if the organisation is large.
 
  
Accepting that an object can have more than one model over time, with perhaps more than one model being  at any given time will help us realise the limitations of the top down model. It is entirely normal , and perhaps necessary, for an organisation to be able to view an entity from different perspectives.
 
So, instead of trying to constantly force these goals in a straight line, why not let them happen in parallel, and manage the changes in each layer.
 
 
If  company A has chosen to model their business processes and create a business architecture, there will be a reason behind this. Often the aim is to make the business more flexible and able to cope with change, through alignment between the business and the IT department.
 
If company B’s IT department recognizes the problem of wild services springing up everywhere, and decides to do something about it, by designing a platform and processes for the introduction of services, is this not a valid approach?
 
With the hybrid approach, it is recommended that company A begin deploying services as quickly as possible. Based on models that are clearly incomplete, and which will therefore change rapidly and often in the near future. Natural business evolution will also mean that the models can be guaranteed to change in the not so near future. To ‘Succeed with SOA’ Company B needs to go back to the drawing board and start modeling processes and objects. So, in effect, we are telling business analysts to start developing code based on a model they are unsure of, and telling programmers to ignore the obvious and growing problems in their IT department and start drawing lines and boxes.  
 
Could the problem be that there are two different problem domains? And the whole concept of SOA as it being described by clever salespeople today creates an example of oft dreaded ‘tight coupling’ between these two domains?
 
Could it be that we have taken two large problem areas, and bundled the solution together in order to create a magic bullet? And then convinced ourselves that the bullet actually exists?
 
Company A wants to have a closer relationship between the business and its IT department, in order to become a more flexible organization. Company B wants to decrease the maintenance costs of its IT infrastructure. If both companies focus on succeeding with SOA, then they aren’t focusing on their actual goals.
 
If Company A starts building services from incomplete models, without a gameplan, they will end up in the same situation as company B, with wild services. If company B focuses on modeling, they could easily end up with the same problems as company A.
 
Now we have two companies, who a short while ago had one problem each, that now have two problems each. This has happened because of a focus on ‘Succeeding with SOA’, rather than solving the problem at hand.
 
This is not to suggest that the two problem domains are unrelated, a strategy that encompasses both will obviously be good for the organization. But only if the organization realizes this and can develop such a strategy. This strategy cannot be bought in a box.
 
 
 
Anyone who has worked with SOA for a while will be used to analyzing the solutions to a problem and judging the solution’s level of coupling. If we have two applications that each perform separate functions, but need to communicate with each other, we create a integration layer between them, perhaps with a service, but we do all we can to reduce the dependency between the two systems. Using the same approach, we can separate the modeling (business architecture) and the service hosting (technical architecture).
 
 
The business architecture describes the processes and business objects in the business domain.
 
The technical architecture describes the hosting and management and implementation of services.
 
The glue that binds these together, the integration layer in our analogy, is the service contract, where the operations map the processes to their technical implementation, and the messages map business concepts to software objects in the implementation.
 
If we reduce the coupling between these layers, we should be able to allow developers to develop services, and business analysts to develop models, without the changes rippling through from one side to the other.
 
This would allow company A to carry on modeling, and company B to develop a service platform, each achieving their intended goal, without necessarily creating the problems seen in pure top down or bottom up approaches. Company B could then at a later date map their service infrastructure to a unified model, and company A could carry on modeling, insulating deployed services from changes in the ongoing modeling.
 
How do we do this?  The concept of service virtualization has been around for a while, and is instantly realizable in Microsoft’s Managed Services Engine. Here we can create a layer of virtual services, which represent the business analyst’s view, presenting uniform contracts to the outside world. These services can then transform and route messages to the actual service implementations. I like to think of the virtual services with their beautifully modeled interfaces as ‘SOA services’, and the implementations as simple integration ‘adapter’ services providing an interface to a technical implementation. The Managed Services Engine also provides policy based control over services, regardless of where they are deployed, simplifying handling of security, logging, exception handling etc.
 
This solves a big problem. The pressure to deliver services quickly is always there in projects. It is very important to quickly show value when implementing service architectures. There is also pressure to deliver quality, and you can’t easily do both at the same time. This approach allows quick delivery with quality increasing over time, allowing modeling and service development to occur in parallel and independent of each other. The link between business modeling and service implementation is not one that is obvious to many organizations, and requires a certain maturity to realize and drive forward. It is also completely possible that a company can benefit from one without the other, even if this approach is frowned upon today, there are many companies doing so and seeing ROI.
 
Of course there are disadvantages to this. The biggest one being the transformations necessary between the virtual interfaces and the service implementations. Bad choices in developing the services in the service implementation could mean that it is impossible to map the modeled processes to the implementation with redevelopment of the service. In many cases the architect will not have a choice here anyway, as proprietary systems are often delivered with predeveloped services. The alternative is to wait until the model is finished and then build the service according the model. However, if that approach worked we wouldn’t be having this discussion! And even when it does work, natural business evolution will mean that the two concepts (model and implementation) will immediately start to drift away from each other, so coupling them tightly together so that they are forever bound to the model that only applies at the time of the modeling work will not really achieve a great deal. Architecture is all about trade offs, and here a choice has to be made. The choice is between something will initially be of low quality but will work, or something that may well be impossible to achieve in most situations.
 
 
 
 
In conclusion, top-down is a natural approach for business analysts, and bottom-up  is a natural approach for developers. Instead of trying to force something on both that neither want, and which has not shown itself to be successful,  why not let them get on with their jobs, and let an enterprise architect coordinate the processes?
Posted on Monday, March 22, 2010 2:42 AM | Back to top


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