The critical importance of SOA

by Toby Ward — The current state of the intranet is terrible; piss poor. There are some great leaders such as IBM, HP and many others that I’ve documented as case studies on this site, but most are quite terrible.
Corporate communications is to blame; IT is to blame; HR is to blame; and above all else, senior management is to blame. IT needs to better understand the business and usability; HR needs to better understand the technology; and communications needs to get better at everything. Moreover, corporate communications is uniquely positioned to step-up and take control of the intranet as its champion; to convince senior management of the benefits, to bring together disparate groups in the organization, and to paint a vision of the future while leading the march towards it. Before they can take charge, communicators need to better understand the technology and the future.

The technology underpinning the intranet has rapidly changed in the past 10 years, and it will likely change even more dramatically in the next 10 years. In recent years we’ve witnessed the rise of advanced content management, knowledge management, search, and the enterprise portal solution. The new social media, Web 2.0, burst onto the scene and is proving to play and important part of this future. Another critical arc in the intranet’s evolution is represented by service-oriented architecture (SOA), a mission-critical important component to the increasingly important portal solution.

Firstly, the concept of portal is nothing new. A portal is a door or gateway of importance. An enterprise portal solution is a complex piece of software that powers a portal intranet and provides user personalization, search, advanced security and, perhaps most importantly, enterprise application integration (EAI, the software and processes that link together or integrate an organizations many applications (e.g. ERP, CRM, HR applications). Application integration is arguably the most important component of the portal and SOA is the catalyst that fuels the integration.

  • Composite application – an application that draws its functionality and data from different sources
  • Portal – a composite application that integrates data from many different sources
  • SOA – a style of integrating disparate resources or applications
Notwithstanding the underlying technology, if you subscribe to the notion that the intranet in purpose is very different from the Internet, and that employees are typically after very specific pieces of data and knowledge, and rarely if ever ‘surf’ the intranet, then the importance of application integration is clear. As employees most often complain they “can’t find anything!” Therefore, quick access to the data and knowledge they need is tantamount to success. SOA enables this quick access.

SOA is not a product but a style or framework for integrating disparate resources or applications. SOA allows different applications written in different languages on different systems to be accessed and retrieved by a single composite application, such as a portal, for all to see – without the end user having a proprietary piece of software (client) to use each of the different applications. In short, applications are ‘loosely coupled’ together and are consumed or used (viewed most often in the web browser) despite the different technologies. Put another way, different applications are used or made available by independent services regardless of platform.

Portals are not really entities unto themselves, but rather a composite of all the tools and applications linked together by the SOA. Portals work in coordinated fashion with other supporting technologies including:
  • Content management systems
  • Document management systems
  • Knowledge management tools
  • Enterprise search
  • Light directory access protocol
  • Business intelligence
  • Web applications for finance, HR, and operations
  • Customer relationship management
  • Web 2.0 (blogs, wikis, etc.)
In short, SOA is the glue that holds the enterprise intranet portal together. Without SOA, the intranet home page can never be a true portal without a phenomenal amount of manual effort to integrate and update all of the little pieces that comprise the enterprise intranet. Additionally, the SOA framework allows for easy application portability – or the ability to change application server without reinventing the wheel.

“Being locked to an application server means that you cannot keep your portal (e.g. WebLogic), if your IT department decides to migrate to another application server,” warns Janus Boye, of Boye IT, the author of the preeminent Enterprise Portals Report from CMS Watch. “Believe it or not, organizations actually change application servers from time to time! Either way chances are that you will not be using the same application server forever. Being locked increases your future migration costs.”

The intranet has traditionally been not a single system working for the benefit of the organization, but a collection of fiefdoms operated by independent groups and egos with independent priorities and politics. This approach has led to sprawling intranets of 1000s of sites and applications (see the portal and intranet case studies on IBM and Ericsson) and wasted millions upon millions of dollars and a tons of employee man years while frustrating the hell out of employees. Smart planning and strong leadership will provide a process for eliminating (or lessening the deleterious impact) a lot of the waste and politics. SOA provides the technology framework for putting this together under a single umbrella, a single portal.
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Toby Ward is the President and Founder of Prescient Digital Media with 15 years of progressive professional experience & business consulting expertise. Contact us directly for more information on how to transform your intranet into a high-value employee & business system.