I'll be the first to admit that the last thing the ECM industry needs is another acronym to keep track of. However, SOA is an emerging networking strategy that not only ECM experts, but all IT personnel should pay close attention to. SOA is a conceptual framework for designing and building IT networks and Web services that allows data to be freely exchanged among heterogeneous systems.
What does this have to do with ECM? Well, there is no question that content management technologies have become more sophisticated and efficient over the past 20 years. ECM systems are no longer proprietary image repositories used for simple archival and retrieval purposes. Today's ECM systems have become an integrated component of daily business processes, such as accounts payable, claims processing, or records management.
However, a major obstacle still remains when it comes to sharing the data contained in these ECM systems with other applications in an organization. Extensive programming is necessary to integrate an ECM application with a business or legacy application. These programming efforts are time-consuming, costly, and specific to the two platforms being integrated. SOA offers hope that these integration issues will become a thing of the past.
The underlying concept of SOA is that each software application can be a Web service that can either provide data to a requestor or receive data. With an SOA, a company can integrate existing software assets, without the need to write expensive single-use program interfaces. An SOA may also be extended to communicate and share data with SOA platforms outside the organization.
When an ECM system is part of an SOA, users would be able to introduce and index an image into the ECM repository without actually being logged onto the system. Based on the metadata contained within the image, the ECM system may also trigger a workflow pattern to complete a process, apply records management policies to the image, and archive the image in the correct storage device. Other software applications, like optical character recognition (OCR), could become Web services available to all users on the network. In the near future, companies may no longer need to purchase dedicated applications like OCR, but will be able to access them over an extended SOA and be charged on a usage basis.
With all the possibilities that SOA offers, it's surprising that we're not hearing more about it in ECM circles. In fact, I'm aware of only a handful of ECM software vendors that are actively redesigning their products as service-oriented business applications. One of the reasons for this lack of urgency is due to some security and performance concerns that surround SOA. Another is the vendor perception that there is still plenty of time to develop SOA solutions. It is true that most organizations moving toward SOA are still in the proof-of-concept stages, however, this may be providing vendors with a false sense of security. According to Forrester Research, 89% of large enterprises, 61% of medium organizations, and 40% of small businesses will have initiated an SOA strategy by the end of this year. This evidence suggests SOA is being adopted more rapidly and universally than anticipated.
If your business is headed down the SOA path and is interested in including ECM capabilities to this infrastructure, your software options may initially be limited. Of course, existing legacy ECM software can be wrapped with SOAP (simple object access protocol) messages to function as part of an SOA. However, these SOAP messages can accumulate and become difficult to manage over time. To be truly compatible and scalable with your current and future SOA needs, your ECM applications should be designed as Web services. Only a few ECM software packages will provide this capability in the coming year.