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Thu 1 Mar 2007 04:42 PM

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Getting to grips with SOA

Service-orientated architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM) provider, WebMethods, has stepped up its campaign to educate CIOs in the Middle East on the benefits of service-oriented architecture.

The terms SOA and BPM are not particularly new to the IT world, but they are a classic example of overused terms that many IT experts still do not fully understand.

Or at least, many do not know exactly how embracing these new models of working can vastly benefit their business.

This was the pressing matter at hand as the WebMethods team took to the stage at the vendor's first ever integration forum in Bahrain, in front of a captivated audience of prospective customers keen to learn more.

As the team explained, SOA is used to describe a software architecture that defines the use of loosely coupled software services to support the requirements of business processes and software users.

Resources on a network in a SOA environment are made available as independent services that can be accessed without knowledge of their underlying platform implementation.

BPM, on the other hand, refers to activities performed by organisations to manage and, if necessary, to improve their business processes. While such improvements are hardly new, software tools called business process management systems have made such activities faster and cheaper.

One of WebMethods' largest customers, STC, was on hand to let the audience in on how it has gone from strength to strength by utilising the services of the SOA and BPM vendor. "The integration department at STC has achieved a lot over the years and we have carried out 200 integrations through WebMethods applications to date," explains Sultan Jerais Al-Jerais, EAI director at STC. "We have millions of customers and we deal with around a million transactions each day so you can imagine the type of challenges we face. The most important thing about SOA is that it can save a lot of money and time, which is very important for our company.

"We've had a reduction in total cost of ownership and time to market and that's what businesses run on."

This certainly backs up the message that WebMethods is trying to put across. According to Steve Winder, regional director at WebMethods UK, Ireland and MEA, there are plenty of software vendors talking about taking this approach right now.

"I think some of the early indications from dealing with our customers is that it can significantly reduce your time to market for new products," he says. "Everybody's talking about it at the moment but you really need to drill down on what the value is and how you can deliver that value to your customers. We tend to try and focus on it from a business perspective rather than the technology perspective. Our space is really driven by BPM with a SOA spin on it rather than just looking at a technology spin." SOA is not a concept that would suit all and companies should be sure to seek advice from those in the know before jumping on the integration bandwagon. As Winder explains, whether it is something that could be of benefit really depends on the company's IT environment.

"It depends what they're doing," he explains. "There are environments where we wouldn't recommend it. Where a customer has wall-to-wall SAP, for example, then they're probably not going to want to use WebMethods. Where we tend to play best is in mixed environments where they need a number of components.

"A particular area where we try to differentiate ourselves is the business activity monitoring of BPM which gives you real-time visibility of what you're doing. That tends to really play well where a customer has got a critical process, business process or manufacturing process."

Research and analyst company Forrester, having recently produced the Forrester wave integration centric BPMS report, also has a few words to say regarding the benefits of SOA and BPM. Azzam Al Dari, consulting director at Forrester, says: "Do not think of business process management as a hype. It's not the kind of software you're going to buy today and throw away in a year's time.

"More than a billion dollars was spent on this kind of software in 2005 and our studies have shown that this has been growing significantly year-on-year. What's making this happen is a corporate shift from a functional focus to process ownership.

"If you look across the globe to where people are talking about the advanced management theory, they're telling you a single message - value to your customer and your organisation is delivered by the business process." One of the main benefits of SOA is that it can speed up the progress of business projects and help meet tighter deadlines, which is crucial when trying to satisfy customers and generate profit in a short timeframe.

Garry Clarkson, EMEA SOA practice manager at WebMethods believes this is something companies in the Middle East are now looking to achieve more than ever.

"The need is now, not in five months," says Clarkson. "A lot of the time IT managers have got to achieve goals in a matter of days.

"There are some scenarios where you're talking about from the concept to market in a matter of months so a business process has to be constructed quickly by reusing all of the services that exist in the enterprise."

There are plenty of other benefits to be had though, according to Clarkson, including simplifying business processes. "It encourages housekeeping because like every system, it gathers more dust if you don't clean it up," he explains.

Clarkson also believes that the concept of SOA is about to really catch on, having reached what he describes as a critical point in maturity. "Now the lessons are going to be how to get people and technology, business and IT to work more effectively. Moving forward I think it's predominantly about education. We've got to be able to educate SOA-orientated architects in how IT organisations can build more business acumen.

Within WebMethods we call it the business of IT as opposed to being an IT function for the sake of the business," Clarkson says.

WebMethods has now gone so far as to introduce online SOA masterclasses in an attempt to spread the word. The company has also recently opened its regional branch in Bahrain as Paul Hammond, regional manager, Middle East at WebMethods explains.

"Very soon we're going to be able to offer a local rate regional number for staff to dial into and get support in English and Arabic," Hammond reveals. "More importantly, we're doing Arabic business hours. That should prove to be a big differentiator for us in terms of supporting the customer network and showing investment in terms of our support in the region," he concludes.

CIO cheat sheet

Service-Oriented Architecture

A service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a collection of services that communicate with each other. This can involve either simple data passing or it could involve two or more services coordinating some activity. Some means of connecting services to each other is needed.

The SOA is not tied to a specific technology and may be implemented using a wide range of technologies. It can be implemented using protocols such as REST, RPC, DCOM, CORBA or web services and, for example, might use a file system mechanism to communicate data conforming to a defined interface specification between processes conforming to the SOA concept. The key is independent services with defined interfaces. These can be set to perform tasks in a standard way, without the service having foreknowledge of the calling application, and without the application having, or needing knowledge of, how the service actually performs its tasks.

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