ANOTHER VIEW—Commentary

Warren Suss | SOA: The dream and reality

Serious questions remain about whether SOA is ready for prime time

Service-oriented architecture ' and the vision for its potential ' has come to mean many things to many people in federal information technology circles.

I happen to like the way Gen. Charles Croom, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, recently described what SOA can mean:

'Industry comes in and says, 'I've got the greatest idea for an application since sliced bread.' Before SOA came along, in most cases, I used to say, 'I don't have the money.' But now we have an SOA environment where you can build and run net-centric capabilities. So we're getting to the point where I'll say, 'If you really have a good solution, we can use SOA to hang your application on our network. You develop this solution on your own dime, but I'll pay you for the use of it.''

From a supplier's perspective, SOA offers a new approach for buying, building, operating and maintaining the government's IT applications, its most expensive and troublesome IT portfolio item.

SOA also holds promise for reducing the time it takes to get new applications into the hands of users. By enabling more rapidly deployable plug-and-play Web services, SOA will encourage competition based on speed to market, not just price and features.

From the user's point of view, this SOA dream is transformative.

It will help to end today's five- to 10-year acquisition cycles that place government technologies in suspended animation while three to six new generations of commercial marketplace technologies speed by, leaving federal and military users trapped with expensive, out-of-date tools and associated operational inefficiencies.

Net-centricity is about placing information assembled by small software sources on the network to be discovered and consumed by whoever needs the information.

SOA offers the opportunity to break out of the systems and application-only mode and move to a real data-on-the-network environment where net-centricity can be realized.

Yet there are serious questions about whether SOA is ready for prime time. Croom, for one, asks vendors who come knocking at his door a tough question: 'Where are you applying SOA to your own internal processes?' He says he's usually met with a blank stare.

Limited industry experience in large-scale SOA deployment limits the set of mature SOA systems and processes available to the government.

To be fair, DISA's Net Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) (www.disa.mil/nces) represents an embryonic form of the dream. It's small today, but it's starting to grow.

DISA now has two NCES collaboration capabilities working on the Defense Information Systems Network.

Both allow instant messaging and chat.

In December 2007, NCES services supported nearly 4,000 hours of collaboration, and DISA has been adding about 150 new users for NCES collaboration services every day. DISA also has content discovery and delivery, and many SOA components are now being used by warfighters.

Big technological challenges remain. For instance, better standards and strategies are needed. Without them, it's hard to introduce new competing Web services quickly; and without competition, it will also be hard to keep prices low and quality high.

Security represents another challenge. The government and the Defense Department are beginning to adopt powerful Web-based commercial applications, including search engines and mapping programs, but they're not really using them as commercial Web services. Instead, the government is purchasing these systems and installing them on protected government networks.

This strategy gets users' hands on the tools and services, but it is doubling the work and cost because the government has to set up a mirror image of industry's computing environment, including operations and maintenance services and help desks, inside protected government computing and network enclaves.

Without more genuine progress on these challenges of SOA implementation, interoperability and security, the government will be caught between a tantalizing dream and the reality of an immature technology.

About the Author

Warren Suss is president of Suss Consulting, a federal IT consulting firm headquartered in Jenkintown, Pa.

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