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Are stacks making SOA a 'complex, hard to use beast'?

Big stacks from major vendors are turning SOA into a bloated animal, says Cape Clear CEO Annrai O'Toole upon the launch of version 7 of his company's ESB, and analysts agree that he has a point.

With today's release of Cape Clear 7, a new enterprise service bus with developer tools from Cape Clear Software Inc, Annrai O'Toole, the company's CEO, is playing David challenging the Goliath vendors approach to service-oriented architecture (SOA).

We've gone from SOA being all about speed and time to market to being these massive SOA stacks.
Annrai O'Toole
CEOCape Clear Software Inc.

The Cape Clear philosophy is that SOA needs a high performance ESB, especially for on-demand software as a service (SaaS), but not the stack that the major vendors are marketing. O'Toole openly acknowledges wanting to spark a debate on the future of SOA between companies like his and SOA stack vendors. Meanwhile, analysts interviewed for this article said while he may be promoting his pure play approach, he may also be right about the dangers of SOA over-sell.

"Over the last year or so as some of the bigger vendors have come into the marketplace, their strategy has been to turn SOA into this kind of massive bloated animal," O'Toole said. "We've gone from SOA being all about speed and time to market to being these massive SOA stacks. The big guys come along and say in order to do SOA you need an ESB, you need BAM, you need BPM, you need a registry. They've turned it into this extremely complex, hard to use beast."

O'Toole said the result is that he is finding potential adopters are increasingly confused and unhappy about being presented with a list of technologies they need for SOA.

"We've seen customers react somewhat negatively to that because the reason they were interested in SOA in the first place was this concept of being fast," he said "We think that's doing the customers a disservice."

While acknowledging that O'Toole has an axe to grind on behalf of his company and its products, analyst say he does have a point.

"There's plenty of concern about the complexity that most of the vendor-defined SOA solutions entail," said Dana Gardner, principal analyst Interarbor Solutions LLC. "And I think there's been a backlash on the user's side concerning complexity and a suite approach that requires a lot of upfront cost, training, and potentially lock-in. So I think Annrai is onto something here, but he is also seeing the world through the lens of a SOA component maker. He obviously will have a bias."

Asked if O'Toole is making a valid criticism or doing his best as a pure play vendor to position his company against the larger vendors, Tony Baer, principal, onStrategies, said, "It's both."

"It does fit the pattern of the upstart challenging the incumbents who sell you a full platform," Baer said. "But it's also the case that SOA stacks are expanding to fill the available space. So you're seeing challengers, even Sun, starting to promote RESTful services as lighterweight alternatives to WSDL."

Baer sees these lightweight approaches to SOA being necessary because with increasingly complex approaches comes the danger of ending up with the new systems being no simpler than the old systems they replace.

Baer said that customers are concerned about the danger of "creating a new generation of spaghetti that happens to use the newest technology stack and standards."

In his view, not every customer is going to need a whole stack of software products to get an SOA project implemented, but they need to have the right pieces – ESB, registry/repository, business process management (BPM) – available.

Gardner sees this need for mix-and-match pieces as playing to the strength of best-of-breed software providers.

"Those defining, selling and marketing SOA suites would do well to adhere to some of the principles that guide architects at the large SaaS service providers and service-provider-like companies such as Google," Gardner said. "They like to tinker and use components and open source products. They like high-performance components that don't lock them in. They want to customize based on their particular needs and installed base. We're seeing that SOA is being adopted on a gradual basis, not as a one-off architectural retrofit of the entire IT operations. So the market may well favor the best-of-breed approach for some time."

For more information
Annrai O'Toole on the challenges SOA faces in 2007

ESB market report

Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst, ZapThink LLC, also sees the danger of middleware oversell in the stack approach.

Annrai definitely has a point," Bloomberg said. "Many software vendors have pounced on SOA as a way to sell more software, middleware in particular. But the fact of the matter is, SOA is something you do, not something you buy. Furthermore, enterprises generally don't need much more middleware to implement SOA. After all, most of them already have plenty of middleware."

Bloomberg warns that potential customers need to consider options when approached by salesman selling an SOA stack, which he notes may also be called an SOA suite or SOA platform in marketing-ese.

"They should ask themselves what they will need to do to integrate that stack into their current environment," he said. "Will they be required to rip and replace older middleware? Do they need to drop into hand coding to perform the integration? And worst of all, will they need to buy more middleware to integrate their new middleware into their old? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then the question I have for them is, what's service-oriented about that? Answer: nothing!"

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