May 02, 2006

SOA's end?

Lots of interesting debates floating around the blogs lately. Tim Bray's The End of SOA is particularly apt. Yes, there's lots of vendor bullshit out there. But his story about why people prefer "SOA" over "Web Services" is cynical tripe, and very representative of the disappointing level of conversation out there.

Web 2.0 folks and REST (or "Web Style") folks are starting to sound like late 90's dot-commers, where if you associate the "Web" with something, there's a magical sauce (sometimes referred to as "lightweight" or "easy" or "open source") that gives you super-strength and solves most distributed system challenges.

There are two problems with this vision:

  1. Distributed systems are not "easy". The web rests on a lot of engineering, and has limits.

  2. Lightweight often means that means you have to solve all of the hard problems yourself, and most people don't have the knowledge to do this.

There's significant hypocrisy and hubris associated with the web 2.0 dev community's values. Web 2.0 is claimed to be a social phenomenon, whereas SOA is just vendor bullshit. Excuse me? Web 2.0 was introduced by vendors too -- it's just as much bullshit as the other terms. There's revenue streams, investment money, and vested interests behind all of these buzzwords, it just seems to be that Web 2.0 has a a more fertile ground for startups whereas SOA has too many entrenched multi-billion players in it, to the point that a startup can't compete. Thus the entrepreneurs and pundits with blogs are going to hype the area where there's money to be made for the little guy.

Web 2.0 is much less of a social phenomenon than people think it is. Blogs & podcasts, sure, that's a big deal (in the long run). Mashups and AJAX, on the other hand, aren't social phenomenas at all - they seem to be mainly just buzzwords that represent programmer hubris, and the triumph of adhocracy. But let's not kid ourselves -- these things are still very hard to put together -- it's not easy at all to create a consistent and quality experience for the user with these technologies.

The Web, HttpXMLRequest, Mashups, REST v. WS-*, are not the "answer" to enabling businesses to become more agile through distributed systems, any more than COM, or CORBA, or DCE RPC were the "answer". SOA was introduced as a concept by industry analysts and architects because they wanted to distill the principles that probably would enable business agility, if people recognized and adopted them. The reason these prior distributed systems standards did not bring about the advantages that SOA proponents claim has a lot less to do with technological limitations (which played a part), and alot more to do with business limitations.

The litmus test I use with CIOs and EA's when helping plan their SOA strategy, is when they claim they're "already doing SOA" , because they have web services, I ask to see how those interfaces are governed. And if they know what contract is in place. If all of this stuff is in people's heads, and there are no known ways to evolve the thing, then it's not likely an SOA. The web doesn't magically overcome the fundamental limits to human comprehension and communication when integrating systems without some kind of governance.

Thus, mashups are not an example of SOA. Blogs, podcasts probably are -- the governance was by the strong personalities behind the original specifications and extensions. Blogs are a good example of SOA solving a hard problem: taking a very simple technical problem in the small across an extremely large & diverse community in the large. They also serve as an interesting experiment on the challenges of extensibility. Most businesses have a smaller community to serve, but have much harder problems to solve.

Now, I don't agree with IBM's approach of providing 10,000 WebSphere products and 21 service offerings. If anything, the misguided positions & actions of larger vendors will kill SOA due to rampant cyncism and confusion. That doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea, it just means that some vendors desparately want SOA to fit with their business model -- IBM's happens to be consulting, BEA's is in selling more software and making sure people use it effectively, Microsoft's is in keeping Windows important.

Posted by stu at May 2, 2006 07:41 AM