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The “S” Stands for Service: An Interview with Sandy Carter, IBM’s VP of SOA Strategy

A published author and the executive in charge of IBM’s Service Oriented Architecture and Websphere strategy, Sandy Carter met with Linux Magazineto discuss how SOA can solve immediate business problems and form the foundation of flexible, responsive information technology infrastructure.

There’s no shortage of hype about Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). Ask any tier one infrastructure vendor or middleware solution provider and the company is sure to tell you that SOA is squarely at the heart of modern enterprise infrastructure. Without SOA, according to the vendor your business will never be nimble enough to compete in today’s marketplace.

But like many hyped technologies, there’s also no shortage of confusion around SOA. Is it a technology? A methodology? A process? A design regimen? Or all of the above? And how can you calculate the benefits of SOA beyond being “more flexible?”

To address some of these questions, Linux Magazine turned to Sandy Carter, Vice President of SOA and WebSphere Strategy for IBM. Since 2005, Ms. Carter has led IBM’s entry into the SOA marketplace and, by a number of analyst metrics, has helped make IBM the marketplace leader for SOA solutions.

Linux Magazine’s Adam Goodman and Bryan Richard spoke with Ms. Carter about the need for flexibility in IT infrastructure, the difficulties of measuring the return on investment of adopting SOA, and the cultural shift enterprises should expect when moving to SOA.

Linux Magazine: What is IBM’s vision of SOA?

Sandy Carter: IBM’s vision for SOA doesn’t start with products, it starts with the business. We take it very seriously that the “S” in SOA stands for “Service,” which you can define as a business task or business requirement. Our conversation with customers start with “What are you trying to do? What processes are you targeting? What challenges are you facing? What is your need for infrastructure flexibility?”

LM: Just how important is the need for flexibility in today’s IT environment?

SC: It’s fundamental. We recently did a Chief Executive Officer study, the world’s largest CEO study actually, that asked what the number one need was. The answer was IT flexibility and the ability to quickly cause business change to occur. Flexibility is critical in today’s enterprise, and it is the driver that leads to SOA.

LM: Do the higher levels of a business organization and the people in the trenches view SOA’s benefits differently?

SC: If there is a disconnect, it exists because, unlike other technologies, SOA is really driven by the business rather than the IT department. The IT department still has to deploy the technology solution, but it’s necessary for the business as a whole to adopt SOA if they are going to be successful.

LM: In preparing for this interview, we talked to a lot of people that are very hands-on and technology-focused. Many viewed SOA more as a marketing concept than an actual technology. How would you respond?

SC: I think it’s a question of perspective. When we talk to customers and go deeper into an organization, we find people saying, “We do this, this, and this,” and we say, “That’s SOA! ” I think what could be possible is that many people in the trenches are using SOA methodologies, but don’t realize it.

LM: One of the concerns that has been expressed about SOA is that it is difficult if not impossible to calculate the true ROI of an SOA-based project. Do you agree with that assessment?

SC: I would say that yielding an ROI isn’t impossible, because we have customers doing it today. However, I would say that today it is very difficult to calculate the true ROI because SOA is very horizontal.

We are very early into the lifecycle of SOA and the tools are just now emerging to gauge the impact of SOA. For example, if you have a registry repository, you only recently had access to a tool to measure the value of the reuse of a particular component.

To address this problem, one of the tools that we have developed is an SOA Business Value Analyzer. It allows you to assess your business and IT goals, prioritize those goals, and input those goals into a “Business Modeler” application. Once you’ve modeled your business processes, you can look at the effect of changing just one process to leverage SOA and seeing the return on investment you would get on just that one change. It’s not perfect, since so many of SOA’s benefits are what we call “indirect,” but it does attempt to quantify the result.

LM: What kind of ROI value does the tool return?

SC: It calculates the different elements that could add value to your business. For instance, it points out areas where you might see cost reduction. It has a set of features to explore business operating efficiency, and can do a top-level benefit summary of being more efficient in the marketplace. It also tries to calculate some of the more indirect benefits, which are more difficult to calculate, such as how SOA improves your front-office, increases revenue, or adds flexibility to your infrastructure.

Our customers have used these tools and 100 percent, or over 3,000 enterprises, said they increased their business flexibility with SOA. 51 percent of our customers can actually show how SOA has increased their revenue. 97 percent of customers have reduced IT costs with SOA.

Obstacle or Misunderstaning?

LM: What is the biggest challenge you face in taking SOA mainstream?

SC: The number one problem we face, quite frankly, is skill. When we talk to customers and ask them to idetntify the number one obstacle to adopting SOA, it’s not they don’t understand it, or lack tge desire to do it — the customers are struggling with how to get started and whether staff has the skills to execute. Both are real concerns. Various analysts predict that sometime between now and 2010, there is going to be a dire shortage of employees with SOA skills.

LM: What skills are lacking?

SC: Overall, SOA architecture for one. How do you look at the reference architecture and determine what you want to start on first. Second, we see a need for skills around how granular to make a service. The reason there is a shortage here is because it requires a combination of skills. You have to have to have some understanding of a business process as well as the underpinnings of IT to best understand how you can reuse a service across your enterprise.

Our customers have told us point blank that unless SOA education becomes available at the university level, they can’t adopt the technology. Their concern is that they won’t be able to find employees with the necessary skills. What enterprises are going to need are people that look at both sides of the equation — IT and business processes — and can apply technology to solve business problems.

LM: Obviously, system administrators and software developers are the IT staff to need technical SOA skills. But who are the people in an organization that define business services?

SC: Ultimately it varies from business to business because the person that designs a business service needs to be the person that is in charge of, or have the most knowledge of, a business process. For example, at Harley-Davidson we put a procurement and marketing process in place and it was the owners of those processes that we worked with. At an insurance company we’re working with it’s actually the CEO that is taking the lead.

SOA adoption generally starts either at the top or with IT but the most successful cases is when it starts with the people in-between, the people with the hands-on knowledge of the business processes.

LM: The term “failed SOA deployment” is bounced around a lot in the media. How big is this problem and what leads to it?

SC: I don’t think it’s as widespread a problem as it’s made out to be. We have some SOA deployment that didn’t pan out, everyone does. Usually you can tie a failed deployment back to an organization starting with the IT department and not with the business as a whole.

If you start with IT, most of the failures you see will be because a company tried to go to broad with a deployment– they didn’t understand the implications horizontal services– they didn’t understand the skills that they needed, and didn’t understand the cultural impact that they would have to go through in creating the project.

The SOA Experience

LM: In the two years since starting the SOA push at IBM, what lessons have you learned?

SC: First, we didn’t expect the uptick to be so quick — the speed scompletely blew away all of our internal timelines. Lesson number two is that SOA has touched industries that we never expected to reach. With bleeding edge technologies, you expect the financial services and insurance markets to be early adopters, but with SOA we see a lot of interest from government and telecommunications, because the benefits are a great fit for those industries.

LM: It seems that for a company to be successful with SOA it needs to adopt an entirely new way of looking at information technology.

SC: That’s correct. I mentioned earlier that our number one challenge was a lack of skills in the marketplace, our number two challenge is the cultural change that needs to take place at businesses in order to leverage SOA. It’s not an IT transformation, it’s a company transformation.

To better understand the impact of this, look at how we rolled out SOA internally at IBM. IBM culture had a lot of siloed processes. Specifically, IBM, had nine different supply chain mechanisms.

But when we went to SOA we took supply chain and made it a horizontal process and now you have nine divisions that have to share supply chains– that’s a big cultural shift. That’s why you see a number of companies start small with a process that’s not mission critical that you can test horizontally.

There’s a lot of change that has to occur, but the benefits of SOA merit the investment.

Sandy Carter is a published author and the executive incharge of IBM’s Service Oriented Architecture and Websphere strategy.

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