Imagine a future where IT systems are not created by computer analysts speaking the languages of Java and C but instead by business managers speaking the languages of supply chain, customer service or product development.

It is a future made possible by Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) – an evolution in the way enterprise IT systems can be built.

SOA will make it possible for business managers to create instantly the IT functionality they need to support business initiatives, instead of submitting a technology request that disappears into the IT department’s backlog.

At the same time, SOA will force IT to begin speaking the language of business rather than technology – driving corporate productivity by putting technology in lockstep with the business.

Today, businesses either build and maintain custom applications (such as invoice processing or personnel systems) at great cost, or they conform their business processes and organisation to pre-packaged software applications.

Both of these approaches have helped automate business processes but have become operationally and intellectually threadbare in recent years.

The usually pejorative phrase “legacy system” was coined to describe old, custom applications that have grown hard to maintain and almost impossible to replace, whereas packaged software brings its own set of challenges since modifying it to meet the needs of a particular business is expensive and risky, often resulting in inadequate, “vanilla” installations.

Business and IT managers alike are saying: “There must be a better way.”

And now, with SOA, there is. With an SOA, business applications are constructed of independent, reusable, interoperable services that can be reconfigured without vast amounts of technical labour. Soon it will be common – at least in high-performing organisations – for business managers to assemble technology services, drawing upon reusable components developed by their counterparts in IT.

The fundamental building blocks of an SOA are web services. They are essentially containers of software logic that can be asked (usually by other web services) to perform specific functions. An SOA is a collection of web services brought together to accomplish business tasks (checking a customer’s credit, for example, or generating an invoice).

It is an innovation that simplifies the inner workings of the technology at the heart of corporations or government entities. Because these services are accessed through a standard, they provide unprecedented flexibility: business processes can be added or altered quickly; software applications can be integrated easily.

Because the services can interact with systems outside a single organisation, they provide the ability for companies to collaborate with customers and suppliers. And because services are simpler than hard-wired applications, they lower maintenance costs. A big telecommunications company uses SOA to allow customers to order phone service online; a government organisation uses it to deliver pension forecasts instantly, rather than in the 40 days it previously required.

Heard it all before? You probably have. People have been talking about taking the programmer out of programming for decades. So what is different now?

In a word, standards are what set SOA apart from previous generations of integration technologies, which were largely proprietary to each vendor. The standards behind SOA have been around in some form for a few years, but they are just now reaching maturity. Just as the standard browser developed by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1990s ignited the adoption of the world wide web, the standards behind SOA, when they mature, will fuel its adoption.

For those still sceptical, it is hard to deny SOA’s importance if you consider the marketplace evidence. Virtually every leading vendor of software development tools and business applications is supporting the adoption of the technology. The largest forces in packaged software are employing SOA to deal with their own complexity. Their products are getting big and complicated; they need to be able to streamline them into manageable pieces.

They also want to increase the functionality of their products by making them easy to integrate with other vendors’ software. As a result, packaged software vendors are bringing SOA into the largest businesses and government institutions in the world.

SOA is also getting attention as a way for companies to solve the nagging problem of legacy systems.

But perhaps the most compelling impact of SOA is how it stands to rewrite the rules on IT governance and organisational structure. In most organisations, IT managers tend to be linked with the specific applications for which they are responsible and the business units they support. Because SOA delivers the promise of solutions that transcend lines of business – and the organisations themselves – IT managers, newly decoupled from applications they manage, will have a broader view of the potential they can deliver.

Once IT speaks the same language as business, it will be primed to design services that help companies bring distinctive capabilities, products and services to market quickly.

These benefits will not be achieved overnight. Like an iPod, SOA is simple to use but not simple to build. SOA adoption is a four to five year journey that begins, most importantly, with buy-in from the highest levels of management and an understanding of how SOA can support business needs.

Like every wave of technology, SOA brings challenges. Companies must tackle platform decisions, reconciling data differences, security approaches and governance questions. Those are among a host of issues that organisations must address to achieve success with SOA, according to recent Accenture research.

But even with the need to clear those hurdles, companies and government entities that adopt SOA have the chance to drive substantial productivity gains and higher levels of performance.

Donald J. Rippert is chief technology officer for Accenture.

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