COMMENT: Analyst's Corner
Design for People, Build for ChangeBy David Baum
SOA and Web 2.0 deliver greater enterprise flexibility.
Oracle Magazine spoke with John R. Rymer, vice president and senior analyst at Forrester Research, about how service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 are enhancing business applications.
Oracle Magazine: What is SOA, and why is it so important for today's businesses?
Rymer: SOA is a set of ideas or principles. In many ways it's nothing new, when you consider that we've been building distributed applications for nearly 20 years. We've learned a lot along the way, and SOA represents a lot of that knowledge. We've learned that modularity is important. We've learned the importance of having flexible software components that are accessible through well-defined interfaces. We've learned a lot about messaging and how to build applications that operate reliably across network links. SOA embodies the best of these ideas, and it relies on Web services to make distributed applications more accessible and affordable.
Oracle Magazine: How does SOA lay a foundation for Web 2.0?
Rymer: Initially what we had on the internet was pages of information. SOA and Web services protocols let us go beyond this simple paradigm of presenting static information. They enable us to create real applications and conduct transactions over the internet. SOA helps with two key aspects of these applications. First is combining data. A lot of the information that people use today comes from the internet. Other information comes from internal databases, and it often has to be combined with the online information in a meaningful way.
Delivering that information through a Web service insulates the applications that use that information from changes in the surrounding infrastructure. Once we can plug services into social networks, we can evolve them to serve user needs with social metaphors like blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds. Without SOA, Web 2.0 isn't very interesting because the systems are too brittle, too static, so they can't evolve to use these new capabilities. At Forrester, we call it "design for people, build for change." Without SOA, it just doesn't happen.
Oracle Magazine: What's the best way to approach SOA when you're confronted with a legacy environment?
Rymer: Start by identifying valuable information from that legacy and then build either a Web service or a REST [representational state transfer] service that accesses that information and makes it broadly available. Of course, once you start exposing key information through Web services, you'll find that the users want to do more with that information than you initially envisioned. Often they want to use it to drive their own business processes. Thus you need some way of ensuring that the interaction with that Web service proceeds with integrity, that you can handle exceptions, that you can complete secure transactions. You need more automation, and you often need to pull in more than one information source. That's when you look to a BPM [business process management] tool like Oracle BPEL Process Manager, which describes flows of information, sequences, and more-complex workflows.
Oracle Magazine: Application developers have created sequences and process flows before. What's new about BPEL?
Rymer: Earlier integration flows were proprietary and attached to an individual product. What BPEL does, like any other standard, is open up this programming domain to lots of people.
In the context of Web 2.0, we have to recognize some limitations. BPEL was designed to automate system-to-system flows. Human workflow is different. It calls for task lists and forms and versatile ways of interacting with users that don't apply when you are creating system-to-system interfaces.
BPEL is evolving, and within a couple of years it will have these human workflow commands. In the meantime, Oracle and others have created extensions to BPEL to allow people to add human workflow to their applications. [Oracle Business Process Analysis Suite includes these process components: Business Process Architect, Business Process Repository, Business Process Simulator, and Business Process Publisher.]
Oracle Magazine: Can you bring this to life with a Web 2.0 example?
Rymer: Imagine how a law firm or construction company could create a social network like LinkedIn to organize contacts and connections. This could be a great way to match resources and skills to the needs of each project, or to pull together a team quickly to respond to a Request for Proposal. We're beginning to understand how to apply these ideas to business.
David Baum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance business writer based in Santa Barbara, California.
Forrester Research is an independent technology and market research company specializing in business and consumer information.