Wednesday, February 11, 2009

SOA in the Recession

 I don’t want to get political, but I am mildly puzzled by what’s going on in the real economy. Whether you look at the US, UK, Iceland (outstanding example) the primary cause of the current macro economic crisis is clearly a “credit bubble”; a huge expansion of debt way beyond borrowers’ means to repay. Yet the answer to the crisis in the US and UK at least seems to be to spend one’s way out of trouble! And whilst this may be perfectly fine for large countries that can sustain increased debt over the long term, for small countries, individuals and large and small companies there’s a compelling case to reduce risk – to reduce costs and to reduce or eliminate debt wherever possible to prepare for future uncertainty. So while politicians might like us all (businesses and individuals) to go out and spend, there’s no chance of this happening any time soon until future prospects become clearer.

Now let’s apply that same thinking to the IT space. In business systems terms we have created our own bubble. It’s happened without us realizing it over the past 20 or so years because most organizations (commercial enterprises and governments) have expanded application portfolios in an uncontrolled manner creating duplication, inconsistency, lower customer satisfaction, high cost and slow response to change. In the good times organizations were happy to spend, spend, spend with little or no governance over architectural integrity or consistency focusing only on short term needs. Effectively we have massively over inflated the assets of the enterprise, knowing all the while that under the surface there is a toxic mess that can’t be easily cleared up. Let’s call it the toxic IT assets.

Most projects today are still tactical in nature, responding to immediate needs but this shouldn’t rule out SOA. Service architecture is a multi-faceted beast which should create stronger linkage between business and IT architecture, standardize common services where appropriate and importantly facilitate rationalization of the existing mess.  So let’s go back to my rhetorical question. Just because we are in a crisis do we continue to expand the bubble? Although we may be cancelling projects and reducing activity, unless we get smart on architecture we are increasing the toxic mess. Because that’s effectively what’s being advocated by suggesting that SOA activity will be slowed, or curtailed because the business cannot afford it.

The issue of “whether to SOA or not” will arise if the SOA budget line is treated exclusively as an IT responsibility. In most enterprises the incremental cost of delivering properly architected applications and infrastructure is actually a very minor cost in the overall scheme of things. Further presented with the business impacts of doing things right, my experience is that business management see the value very easily. Application rationalization benefits in particular can be achieved in the relatively near term, and have immediate benefits in terms of reduced complexity as well as reduction in real costs of ongoing managed operations, maintenance and licenses.

The right course of action is to involve business management in project initiation and governance decisions; to share with them the cost and benefits of architectural decisions, and to do this on the basis that service architecture is business as usual (BAU) and the key questions to be answered revolve around the level of standardization, componentization and rationalization in business and IT.  

In these recessionary times it would seem very appropriate that we focus SOA efforts more strongly on IT rationalization - reducing risk, reducing cost and preparing for future uncertainty and create clear linkages between the IT and business rationalization efforts.  Now we know how to avoid further inflating the bubble, it would seem reckless not to advise the key stakeholders how to better manage the organization’s assets and reduce business risk.