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IBM's head of software hit the SOA trail Wednesday, bringing IBM's version of "clarity" to the debate on SOAs and encouraging ISVs to turn their applications into modular suites.

Steve Mills spoke to journalists ahead of a customer event in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, to press the line hat IBM has a lead in Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs).

Helping drive the message was news of a $94m, 10-year consulting and technology SOA deal with Fireman's Fund Insurance, to consolidate up to 70 per cent of the US west-coast-based company's applications and put more business online. IBM also announced ERP specialist Lawson Software will next year start to integrate its back office suite with IBM's WebSphere middleware, DB2, Rational and Tivoli software.

Mills said he was using his San Francisco trip to explore SOAs, layout a roadmap for IBM's technology, take feedback and help some of IBM's largest and most sophisticated customers understand what IBM is delivering. "We often get some deviated definitional ideas floating around," he said of SOA, before giving IBM's definition.

A SOA is, according to Mills, an application infrastructure that integrates business processes, re-uses existing assets and allows applications to act as a service, serving the needs of the business. To reach the SOA nirvana, customers must first understand their processes, then model those processes into code, and then use orchestration, workflows and choreography for data and transactions to flow.

SOAs are not about one single piece of technology. "In an industry hunting for the next widget this evolution is about the application of technology to the business problem in the broadest contest, it's no longer about the individual gadget," Mills said

As such, Mills said ISVs should stop turning out blocks of product and make applications modular, able to "combine and recombine... in new composite ways that might not be possible following monolithic design structures."

It's important for the application vendors to make the right boundary choices the customers don't want an "endless bucket of bolts," Mills added.

Surprisingly, for the owner of a large services operation, people do not figure in IBM's SOA nirvana. When asked about revenue from its SOA business, Mills said IBM is using WebSphere, Tivoli and Rational to tackle the $600bn labor cost overhead associated with in-house software customization. "Customers are looking for technologies that automate and displace that labor," Mills said.

An uncomfortable looking Mills did indicate, though, IBM expects to benefit in its services and products businesses as customers' move to SOA. "Proportionately, services is a larger part of the industry and IBM than is software... most customers' money goes to purchase labor today. That's the reality and a statement of the challenge," Mills said.

Mill's appearance in San Francisco comes amid increased concern that vendors like IBM are hindering the cause of SOAs by using different - even conflicting - definitions.

Industry standards group the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) last week announced a committee to develop a reference model for providing a basic definition of SOA.

IBM was missing from the committee's original line-up - like the majority of enterprise software companies who claim they provide SOA products. IBM has, though, applied for membership since then. ®

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