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IBM takes different track on SOA

Resetting the hype?

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The one thing more predictable than mighty IBM every few months staking a bigger claim on the market for service oriented architectures (SOAs) than it did last time, is for its competitors to also wheel out some "me too" PR news.

And so it was, on Monday that IBM announced nothing less than eight new products and a stonking 20 enhancements to existing products intended to help customers build SOAs. IBM backed this with the usual roster or media-approved customer endorsements, this time Pep Boys, Harley-Davidson and Magna Steyr stepped up.

Not to be outdone, BEA Systems - currently one of IBM's biggest competitors in application servers, integration and, therefore SOAs - alerted the world to its own SOA news. "Customers say BEA is number-one choice in SOA," a BEA press release screamed 24 hours after IBM's news. What customers? Unsurprisingly, BEA customers.

SOA has, rightly, come in for criticism because of this kind of hype and because of its underlying relativism. Ask any vendor what they mean by SOA, and you will generally get a different definition. Often SOA, which is based on web services interfaces, is being used by vendors to breath life into their own products or to let their products work better with other vendors' products. In the case of companies like IBM, SOA is enabling greater integration and more modularity of function - leading to re-use of code and features - between its WebSphere middleware, Tivoli management, DB2 database and Rational tools.

A handful of vendors are working on a common SOA architecture at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Those pushing the SOA architecture span the obvious (BEA), the relatively small (Infravio) and even end-users (Visa), but, curiously, it seems no IBM.

SOA at least seems to be changing, though. Central to IBM's news this week was a greater focus on people and processes. Gone, or at least relegated, was the news of yet more SOA-enabled middleware and tools. IBM instead announced people and processes are among five "entry points" to "initiate an SOA project". It announced four new software releases to help target these supposed entry points. Call it a fresh spin on marketing - products that help people and processes, rather than SOA products for the sake of SOA products.

Supporting the "people-centric" approach, IBM announced WebSphere Portal 6.0 that integrates with its Workplace and uses Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) to help developers build "rich" interfaces. Also featured, is a process engine from the WebSphere Process Server to simplify the integration of business processes. Process is tackled with WebSphere Business Monitor 6.0, which features business alerts and links to third-party reports to let users know what the competition is up to.

Steve Mills, senior vice president and software group executive, explained the focus: "It's our view at IBM that [as an industry] we've reached an important inflection point. It's less around gadgets and more about how technology gets applied. We believe in a world now that's not technology led. It's about business process and process integration."

The new SOA dressing appears anchored in a realization that, despite crushing levels of hype and endless customer "endorsements" for SOAs, the SOAs themselves - what ever they be - are taking longer to realize at a customer level then the vendors' pushing them would have liked.

Mills, separately, told the Financial Times this week that SOA still amounts to a tiny part of IBM's revenue, despite the fact IBM has doubled its customer SOA engagements in the last year. Mills' statement is in keeping with similar statements by other SOA cheerleaders, including SAP who reportedly said less than half of its 25,000 customer base will be on SOAs by 2010.

SOA will remain a big focus for IBM, make no mistake.

Mills has committed IBM to spending "a large amount of money" - more than $1bn a year - on SOA, technology, training and support. However, SOA probably matters more to IBM that to others. IBM is gambling on SOA to knit together separate code bases and wants greater modularity and code re-use across its vast software portfolio.

Of any platform provider, IBM also probably has the diversity of portfolio to deliver SOAs. IBM can - from a strategic perspective - mix and match, and re-use components to its heart's content. It certainly has a lead over many others: BEA only last week talked about plans to make its WebLogic application server "more modular" but gave no hint when this would happen.

Just look forward to a different focus from IBM, and expect competitors to follow suit. ®

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