SOA: New efficiencies for small business?

Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is an IT term probably recognized by most large companies, but it's not so familiar to smaller businesses.

That's not surprising since most experts agree SOA has a lot more value for organizations that use a multitude of applications and IT-enabled business processes, often described as "enterprise" scale.

SOA isn't hardware or software but rather a way of building and developing software applications. It's more of a strategic or even philosophical approach to building a computing environment. There are tools that allow application developers and IT organizations within businesses to build SOAs.

With SOA, the idea is to create the ability for complex enterprise applications to interoperate through the sharing of information, functions and processes. It's done through a sort of software "glue" often described as "middleware" and provides the ability for these complex applications to interoperate through sharing information, functions and processes.

"The primary benefit of SOA is the ability to reconfigure and reconnect applications more easily," says software consultant David Chappell of Chappell & Associates in San Francisco. "The A in SOA is what's really important. It's an approach to designing, building and connecting software."

SOA allows business applications to expose "services" that can be used independently from the applications to which they might be tied. These services intercommunicate with each other, doing things like relaying instructions for simple data passing or much more complex processes such as co-ordinating multiple application activities in different software packages.

SOA can make it easier to tie different types of applications and IT resources together, making them work like a single and shared whole.

SOA isn't a new concept. According to Mr. Chappell, the idea of SOA has existed for at least 10 years, but for the longest time it simply wasn't practical to implement.

The idea is growing. Market research from Forrester Research suggests there's strong interest in the SOA concept, especially among larger companies. Research published by the firm in 2005 showed almost three-quarters of survey respondents from companies with 20,000 or more employees said they were using or planning to use SOA.

Conversely, only about one-quarter of companies with less than 1,000 employees said they were likewise planning or using SOA - and more than half of that group said they weren't pursuing SOA at all.

Mr. Chappell agrees the smaller the company, the less value there is in a concept like SOA. Most small and medium businesses won't see much reason to introduce it, he says, adding that, to even care about SOA, you need to have some challenges in your business around connecting applications together.

"In my experience, smaller organizations derive less benefit from SOA," he says. "Smaller organizations tend not to have lots of applications that need to be connected in diverse ways."

A smaller company might use one or two large and comprehensive application packages to drive key processes in its business. But the typical small company doesn't use a multitude of applications that exchange or share functions and information, so they don't have as much to gain from SOA.

Likewise, business professionals aren't apt to care much about the SOA concept either, he says.

"SOA is usually an IT undertaking," Mr. Chappell says, explaining its greatest value is seen in the efficiencies gained in IT operations. "I don't think that in the main, business people need to care about SOA."

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