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What is SOA?

Once again the participants in the SOA discussion group have got themselves all riled up about what exactly SOA is and why it may or may not be working. Here’s my two cents. We’ll start with another history lesson. (Skip it and get to the meaty bits.)

Once upon a time, the employees of Example Corp. complained to the Finance department that they were tired of using spreadsheets to file expense reports. So Finance went to IT and said, “Build me an expense report management system — and I want it by the end of the year.” And IT went among the people in HR and Finance and the company at large and gathered requirements and analyzed business processes. After which they returned to Finance and said, “The end of the year’s out. How ’bout June?”

“Just get it done,” said Finance.

In December of the following year IT delivered a system that more or less met most of the requirements they had gathered. “Fine. Sure. Whatever,” everyone said.

Then one day, Finance came back to IT and said, “Hey, I need to pull all expense data into our new ERP system.”

“No problem,” said IT, “We’ll code up a batch process that produces a monthly report and then we’ll insert that information right into the ERP system’s database.”

“Erm, Okay.” said Finance, and went away bewildered. But some months later Finance returned to IT and said, “We’ve upgraded the ERP system, and now that expense thingy isn’t working anymore.” As it happens IT had just been visited by Consulting who had said, “My consultants are tired of entering expense data twice. Fix it.”

IT was sullen. How were they ever going to integrate all these systems? And shouldn’t they prepare ahead of time for the pending acquisition of Sample Systems?

“We could publish our database schema,” said one IT member.

“Won’t work. People will enter things wrong,” said the lead developer.

“Stored procedures?”

“Maybe, but that means deploying database client libraries everywhere.”

“We could create an API that we distribute to everyone who asks,” suggested another IT member.

“Too many languages, frameworks, and operating systems,” replied the lead developer.

“Didn’t someone just buy an EAI engine? Couldn’t we use that?” asked a third developer. Everyone laughed.

“What about CORBA?” queried the new guy.

“What about what?”

“CORBA. Look, see. Interoperable remote procedure calls. Keep the business logic over here, publish the interface, let the client worry about the rest. I’ve already built a prototype.”

The IT people were impressed. They showed the prototype to Finance and Consulting. The prototype was quickly moved into production. Flush with success, the lead developer said, “You know what, we should make everyone do this. From now on no more application silos. Everyone must make functionality available over the network.” But few listened. The Microsoft guys said that it sounded right in principle, but we should use DCOM. The mainframe guys went on building CICS apps. And, frankly, it went right over the heads of the PowerBuilder and ColdFusion guys. Worse, CORBA wasn’t quite as easy to use as it seemed. It was complex, nothing interoperated, it didn’t work through firewalls, and a bewildering number of specs were coming out of the OMG.

“Well, how about this new SOAP thing,” said the new new guy. “It’s simple, it works through firewalls, all the vendors are on board, and, look, there’s only three specs, and we don’t need this UDDI one.” There was much rejoicing. “This just has to work,” said the lead developer (now promoted to enterprise architect). “I can’t prove it, but I can feel it in my bones. We just need to give this idea a name.”

“I’ve heard it called service-oriented architecture,” said the new new guy.

“Service-oriented architecture, ay? I like it. Nice acronym too. SOA. Lets pronounce it soh-uh.”

Soon, the word spread throughout the land: No more silos. Make functionality available on the network using standardized, interoperable protocols. We’re service-oriented now. And, believe it or not, people got it. Now that they could see that it just might work, it seemed like a painfully obvious idea. Building silos is bad. Exposing functionality on the network is good.

And… Well, you know the rest. They picked the wrong technology again, despite the fact that the right choice was staring them in the face. Like CORBA before it, SOAP wasn’t quite as easy to use as it seemed, interoperability was problematic, and a bewildering number of specs were coming out of the W3C, OASIS, and the vendors themselves. Not only that, there was a big pile-on of suspect products, pie-in-the-sky promises, and ever changing architectures. But, really, all that’s besides the point. The point is that more people than not understood the value of deploying standards-based, network accessible business logic.

So, then, what is SOA? For one thing, SOA is misnamed. It’s not an architecture in any sense of the word. It is, to use a Burton Group phrase, a mind set. It is the generally held belief that when implementing systems one should expose system functionality for general consumption directly from the network, as well as or instead of burying it behind a user interface. It is, as well, the belief that there is a great deal of value to be generated by retrofitting network accessibility into most existing systems. And it is the belief that this can only work if the means of doing so aren’t locked to a particular language, framework, operating system, vendor, or network architecture.

Another problem with the SOA name is the “service” bit. At least for me, the term “service” connotes a collection of non-uniform operations. I don’t even like the phrase “REST Web services.” Certainly, SOAP/WS-*, CORBA, DCOM, etc. fit this definition. But REST? Not so much. In REST the key abstraction is the resource, not the service interface. Therefore SOA (and I know this is not anyone’s strict definition) encompasses the above mind set, but includes SOAP and similar technologies and excludes REST.

A better name for SOA, then, might be network-oriented computing (NOC). This encompasses both WS-* and REST (and most everything else from the socket level up). We can, if we want, make SOA and resource-oriented architecture (ROA) a subset of NOC. In which case the “architecture” bit makes sense again.

“But wait,” I hear my SOA-loving readers say. “SOA is not about exposing business logic on the network. That’s just a technology thing. SOA is about the business! CxOs and business units don’t care about technology, they will only pay for business solutions.” Which always makes me scratch my head. What exactly does IT ever do that’s not about the business? Do they not work for the same company as the other BUs? Is a firewall about the business? Of course it is; there’s a business requirement to maintain information security. Is a router about the business? Obviously, the business is demanding networked communications. Is an application server about the business? Yep, having someone else write all the plumbing gets systems out faster, and that’s a business requirement. How about Agile? That too is a business requirement, faster, better software. Testing? Yes. VoIP? Yes. SOA? Yes.

“No, no,” the SOA-is-business advocates reply. “It’s not just ‘business’ it’s better alignment with business. You see, if we can identify a business process such as ‘open new account,’ then we can create a service called OpenNewAccount. You see how those things line up there.” All well and good, say I, but as Stu and Steve say, “Things change. And besides, what if you’re in perfect alignment with the business, but the system doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t scale? What if clients can’t use it? What if the programmers can’t code it?”

“Well, it’s not just about business alignment,” another group of SOA advocates claim. “It’s really about governance.” Again, I’m scratching my head here. Everything is about governance! Software development (network-oriented or not) is about governance: ‘You must use a version control system; you must write unit tests.’ Moving systems into production is about governance. Updating a routing table is about governance. Hiring a new employee is about governance. Buying a plane ticket is about governance.

“No, no.” They go on. “With SOA there’s new things to govern.” That’s true, there are. But really, is it that much different than any other governance process? Not really.

(By the way, I’m also on record as saying that REST requires less governance than WS-*. While others might say the governance needs are the same. I stand by what I say by noting that if there’s any chance in hell of getting all this to work, it’s going to require a truck-load of governance.)

So, that’s it. As Stefan also points out, SOA today has a number of fluid definitions: It’s the notion of tearing down silos and making functionality available on the network (frequently with the WS-* stack implied), it’s the use of governance to ensure that people do this right, and its the alignment of business with IT. If any of these can be considered more right than the other (by usage or historical precedent), then I would have to say it’s the first.

No matter which definition works for you, though, SOA is misnamed. So I’ll leave you with some updates to your lexicon:

  • Network Oriented Computing (NOC): An approach to computing that makes business logic available over the network in a standardized and interoperable manner.
    • Service Oriented Architecture (SOA): A technical approach to NOC that has a non-uniform service interface as its principle abstraction. Today, SOAP/WS-* is the chief implementation approach.
    • Resource Oriented Architecture (ROA): A technical approach to NOC that has an addressable, stateful resource as its principle abstraction. Today, REST/HTTP is the chief implementation approach.
  • Business Service Architecture (BSA): An unnecessary term (also not an architecture) that tries to make the obvious something special. Aka, business analysis. Aka, requirements gathering.

{ 56 } Comments

  1. Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz | October 5, 2007 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Hello Pete,
    I don’t agree with your definition of SOA or ROA for that matter. I think both of them are architectural styles (sort of like patterns at the architecture level) for designing distributed systems.
    I started explaining this further in this comment but it got a little long so I posted it on my site instead:


  2. Josh Haberman | October 5, 2007 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I worked at (one of the most prominent advocates of SOA) for 2.5 years, and very little you’ve written here has any relation to my experience. Maybe there are diverging and incompatible uses of this term.

    Here’s how the SOA story went at Amazon. The website used to be powered by a single monolithic binary called Obidos. Absolutely everything was inside this multi-gigabyte binary: every snippit of HTML (it was compiled from a internal templating language into C), every bit of business logic, and every bit of database code that iterated over the results of a SQL query. This binary was so big that the linker would run out of memory — we had a special linker just to get around that.

    I don’t think I need to explain why this process didn’t scale. Forget the technical reasons, and just think about having teams from all over the company trying to jump on the release train every time a new build was getting ready to go to production.

    SOA for Amazon is simply a way to break that monolithic ball of mud apart. The website is essentially an enormous aggregator that’s pulling information from tons of systems: personalization, shopping cart, browse trees, product data, shipping and availability information, customer info, and billing systems, just to name a few. Letting each one of those systems be a “service” is the only reasonable way that each system can be sanely maintained by a group that is responsible for it.

    Business logic is one reason to make services independent, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. A service owner is concerned with issues like: what are we using as our storage backend? An ACID database, or perhaps something with better availability? How are we partitioning our data? How does our data propagate? What batch jobs are we running, and how does that affect our level or service? How available is our service? Can we stay up if our database goes down? What is our caching model? How much hardware do we need to sustain our level of service? How will we scale for the Christmas season this year? What do we need to monitor in our systems, and what threshold should ring our pagers? What metrics do we need to track, to understand both the technical and business impacts of our systems?

    It is the fact that every service can be deployed independently of the others that makes it possible for each team to answer these questions for themselves. Website deployments can then be focused on content, as opposed to these deep systems-level issues. Meanwhile, system owners can deploy new versions of their systems that make really substantial changes without the website even noticing (as long as the change was API compatible).

    That’s what SOA is about, at least in an Amazon context. Amazon might be unique in that it has so many systems and so much data.

  3. Pete | October 5, 2007 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Arnon: For the record, these are not my definitions of ROA and SOA, these are my redefinitions of the terms. I replied in full on your blog.

    Josh: Thanks for the feedback. First, based on what I know about Amazon internals, which is just a little bit more than one would ordinarily know, I would say that Amazon is indeed unique. As to the meat of your comment, I agree; all this and more is what a service owner has to worry about, and it’s all wrapped up in the term ‘governance.’ But while self evidently critical, it’s nothing new. You could subsititute an ordinary Web app for all of your concerns and everything would still apply. Where that can’t be done are the places that make SOA governance a little different than other IT governance needs. The only thing that’s really different is 1. the granualrity (lots of independent services instead of one big Web app) and 2. that these services are directly accessible from the network.

    Don’t get me wrong, service/resource enabling your apps and your enterpirse is strategically important. And properly designing and managing these, um, components is critical. But the principal difference between now and then is the tendency for people to do this at all.

  4. Steve | October 6, 2007 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The term NOC is already used to describe “network operations centers.” Acronyms can of course have different meanings depending on context, but in this case your suggested definition and the existing are perilously close.

    An alternative could be WOA, which I spotted recently in a Gartner report. It stands for “web-oriented architecture” and the meaning associated to it was SOA, but built on REST, XML, ATOM/RSS, and other open, scalable protocols and standards.

    WOA also nicely implies that it builds on HTTP, which is the ONLY proven, scalable application protocol with wide adoption.

  5. Josh G | October 8, 2007 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    @ Steve: “the ONLY proven, scalable application protocol with wide adoption” — you haven’t heard of SMTP then? HTTP is great for transporting hypertext documents and scales superbly (as the WWW proves) with an interaction model of request document, read, click link, repeat. Of course with a few read form, fill in form, submit, request document interactions thrown in. If your system integration needs are along the same lines, you will have much success. Otherwise, it’s an overly simplistic view.

    @ Pete: I liked your article. One often overlooked facet of modern SOA is to shift abstraction emphasis away from the transport, interface, and types and focus on the message (much as REST focuses on the resource). Someone called it “message-coupling” the other day to indicate that we bind interoperations to an external and agreed content model, not to interface signatures. RPC is RPC, no matter how much textual markup and WS-* specs you put around it. RPC is not SOA.

  6. Berta Berlin | October 8, 2007 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I can’t see - from a technical point of view, why SOA is different from RPC or DCOM (or any other protocol).
    It’s just sending text over tcp/ip. Nothing special.

    But SOA has pretty much marketers - and non-techs were told that SOA can redeem them from the IT-BUs.

    It’s a nice thought, having components of business logic that can be glued together to form a business process.. blablabla

    I don’t think that this will ever work. As EAI didn’t, SOA wont rescue us.

    But no question - SOA is one of the bigger steps on the way of computer technology.

    It’s all on the way to be unified.

  7. Martin Eggenberger | October 8, 2007 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Pete Lacey
    I totally agree with the naming confusion and I would put it as follows:

    What comes to mind very quickly is that Architecture as in SOA doesn’t make a running system but describes a system that uses Service Oriented Computing principles. I guess some Marketing folks didn’t understand the difference between Architecture, Development, Operations and Business. But why is it advantageous to use the SOA versus the SOC acronym. I guess, some big consulting companies do like to sell only the architecture piece without the actual development and operational support necessary to make an architecture work.

    This is brilliant, as most executive management doesn’t understand the difference either. Let’s sell an architecture (e.g. blue print) and have them figure out how to build it and in the meantime we can sell them services for implementing that blue print. Most people are probably
    not offended by this issue but as a software professional I demand a name change.

    And the winner is anything but SOA.
    I vote for SOC as in service oriented computing which encompasses everything from business services, service compositions, service runtime and governance; to cross cutting concerns.

  8. Chris Marino | October 16, 2007 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Pete, came back to this post tonight and saw for the first time that you say:

    “Resource Oriented Architecture (ROA): A technical approach to NOC that has an addressable, stateful resource as its principle abstraction. Today, REST/HTTP is the chief implementation approach”

    Don’t want to fan the flames more than I have to, but the definition of REST requires that interactions be *stateless*. See Fieldings paper

    Was this a typo, or are you saying that statefulness is essential to NOC?

    I am not trying to be pedantic, nor am I dogmatic about this. I simple want to understand your position.

    IMHO, stateful resources aren’t really all that different from RPCs. You might as well put the SOAP messages in the URI or HTTP header (something I’ve seen being used).

    It might be NOC, but I wouldn’t call it REST

  9. Pete | October 17, 2007 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Chris: When I wrote “stateful resources” I was referring to resource state, not session state. Confusion abounds because the word state is overloaded. See this later comment.

  10. Ian Bruce | October 17, 2007 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Eloquent and fun, a great post Pete. As one of the marketing types that may or may not be responsible for some of the confusion and hype, I like Bosworth’s pithy definition of web services, which might also apply to the ethos behind the whole SOA idea.

  11. Bob McCormick | October 23, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    If SOA is really an architectural style, then we really don’t need a new term (like ROA) to describe replacing the WS-* bloat with REST. And IMHO REST is perfectly capable of implementing “services” for any sane definition of services.

    Rather than have to fight the whole mindshare fight of convincing people than SOA is yesterdays news and ROA is the new “right” way to do things, why not just embrace and extend? REST is just SOA done right. It’s SOA improved. SOA 2.0. Instead of calling an obscure OpenNewAccount service, we “create” a NewAccount. What could be more natural? What could be more “Business Focused”?

    WS-* and the obtuse bloat than the vendors and committees have turned it into is the problem, not SOA.

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  1. Sam Ruby | October 5, 2007 at 5:10 pm | Permalink


    Pete Lacey: Kinda.  NOC encompasses REST?, That I’ll buy.  But to say that NOC emcompases protocols which, by design, attempt to abstract away the network?  Well, … not so much….

  2. Stefan Tilkov's Random Stuff | October 7, 2007 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    SOA History from Pete Lacey…

    Pete Lacey joins the “What is SOA” debate, including a nice kick at Steve Jones’s shin. Steve is quick to reply. I don’t see the two of them get along anytime soon :-)……

  3. [...] Pete Lacey had a very interesting post entitled, “What is SOA?” I encourage you to go to his blog and read the whole thing, but I wanted to call out a couple of nuggets here for some comments. First: “But wait,” I hear my SOA-loving readers say. “SOA is not about exposing business logic on the network. That’s just a technology thing. SOA is about the business! CxOs and business units don’t care about technology, they will only pay for business solutions.” Which always makes me scratch my head. What exactly does IT ever do that’s not about the business? Do they not work for the same company as the other BUs? [...]

  4. [...] Resourced. This whole ROA vs SOA debate, where are we going with that? [...]

  5. [...] To me, the real question is how do you get the benefits of flexibility and dynamic languages, while avoiding ad-hoc interfaces? I think the solution is a services architecture - the problem is that we still have debate over what web services and a services architecture really is. I like Adam Bosworth’s definition of Web services from a 2005 interview in Queue: KIRK MCKUSICK (KM) People sure talk a lot about Web Services, but it’s not clear they’re all talking about the same thing. How would you define “Web Services”? ADAM BOSWORTH (AB) The term Web Services refers to an architecture that allows applications to talk to each other. Period. End of statement. [...]

  6. [...] Not a TLA more, Not a TLA less. Filed under: SOA — Sankar Khrishnamurthy @ 9:51 am Pete Lacey has written an entry regarding What is SOA? And the blogosphere has responded as well,  Sam Ruby, Stefan Tilkov, to just mention two.  Here are my 2 cents. [...]

  7. [...] Pete Lacey’s Weblog :: What is SOA? [...]

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