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OASIS panel ponders: What is SOA

Supporting standards and even the pronunciation of the acronym are still up in the air as a panel of architects concludes that SOA is still a work in progress.

San Francisco, Calif. -- Mark Chapman of Oracle Corp. asked a key question while leading a panel discussion on SOA at the OASIS Symposium: Do you pronounce it S-O-A or do you call it So-ah?

There was no consensus among the audience and the lack of a clear way of pronouncing the acronym for Service Oriented Architecture seemed to be a metaphor for the larger problem faced by its advocates.

How is it that we can transform our companies to be more efficient and dynamic and be able to leverage IT in a positive way?
Robert Carpenter
Senior Program ManagerIntel Corp.

Chapman said there are multiple definitions of SOA and he lamented that it has in some ways become a marketing buzz word with almost every new software product release touting SOA capabilities or, at least, compatibility.

While the panel discussion was officially titled "Does SOA Help Interoperability?" it really became an attempt to answer the question: "What is SOA?"

The panel that included architects working on standards for SOA was unable to produce a final word on what SOA is. In the end, Chapman, who is consulting member of technical staff at Oracle, concluded that however you pronounce it, SOA is still "a work in progress."

Lack of clarity in defining SOA makes it difficult for software architects to sell it to the business side of their organizations, said panelist Robert Carpenter, senior program manager at Intel Corp. Talking about re-use does not excite management and executive types because they've been hearing about the advantages of re-use since the days when Object Oriented (OO) Programming was the buzz word of the day.

"SOA is one more opportunity to get it right," Carpenter said. "We've had that opportunity before. We've gone to management and talked about reuse. We were going to get all this TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) reduction by reusing all of this code that our developers are writing. We've been making that argument since the days of OO."

But after giving this history lesson for the younger OASIS members in the room, he expressed optimism that perhaps this time the opportunity to get it right might not be lost because there are some differences between OO and the potential for SOA.

"There's been a development in the re-factoring process of the big four: transport, data representation, service invocation, and discovery," Carpenter explained. "Those are HTTP, XML, SOAP and UDDI. And they give us a basic plumbing framework, which is being expanded by OASIS in a number of directions to become a rich framework with which we can begin to build interoperable applications."

The other thing that is different about SOA as opposed to past attempts to accomplish many of the same goals is that the standards, even those that are still evolving or are as yet to be clearly defined, have "significant vendor support."

The advantage of HTTP, XML, SOAP and UDDI is that they do provide standardization that was not available in previous generations of application development frameworks, he said. But he argued that rather than talking to management about Web services standards, architects need to focus on the business value SOA can provide for the end users of the applications.

"These are the kinds of things that we as architects need to be thinking about," he said, warning that as important as evolving standards are to supporting SOA development, architects need to look beyond the technology of Web services. "Really we need to think about how does this whole thing change our companies? How is it that we can transform our companies to be more efficient and dynamic and be able to leverage IT in a positive way?"

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Carpenter said the future success of IT professionals in general, and software architects in particular, may hinge on their ability to facilitate the movement of their company in new directions.

Near the end of the panel, Michael Evanoff, technical director for ManTech Internation Corp., and a voting member on the OASIS SOA Blueprints Technical Committee, said he believes the OASIS SOA Reference Model may evolve into the definition that architects are seeking. A technical committee was formed for the reference model about a year ago, but while praising the work the committee is doing, Evanoff said the reference model will need a strong evangelist to assure that it rises above the other competing definitions and marketing hype.

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