ECM VARs have recently been introduced to a new acronym — SOA. It has been a focus of many ECM vendors and was a central topic of many new product announcements at the 2006 AIIM Expo. However, while most ECM VARs have heard of SOA, many still don’t have a clear idea of what SOA is and how it will impact their future business. This article will attempt to shed some light on the subject.
SOA is a conceptual framework for designing and building IT networks and Web services that allows data to be freely exchanged among heterogeneous systems. In other words, it’s the practice of configuring IT applications as a set of services that can call and request data from one another and share that data without the need to be hard-line integrated together using extensive programming language.
“SOA is effective at addressing three key business system integration needs: interoperability, loose coupling, and code reuse,” says Gary Gershon, principal of IMERGE Consulting, Inc. “SOA facilitates system interoperability by allowing the exchange of business data and transactions in a manner that is independent of proprietary platforms and software. All integrations are loosely coupled, so individual applications can evolve and be upgraded without affecting the other applications that integrate with it. Finally, legacy application code can be reused by sharing the results of business logic, rather than attempting to decipher and share the code itself.”
All of these characteristics of SOA make it an attractive approach for an ECM solution deployment. As you well know, most ECM products need to be highly integrated with other business applications (e.g. capture devices, ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, Microsoft Office, etc.) in order to maximize the solution’s effectiveness. Using SOA to accomplish this integration allows an organization to be flexible in response to changing business needs and can reduce the total cost of ownership of an ECM solution for your clients. The time saved on application integration can also be advantageous for VARs, allowing them to delve more deeply into identifying a customer’s overall organizational requirements and expanding its business opportunity.
Business Drivers Foster SOA Adoption
The ideas behind SOA (i.e. interoperability, loose coupling, and reuse) are not necessarily new. However, businesses are facing new challenges these days, and IT departments have begun to embrace the SOA concept as a way to deal with those problems.
“The driving force behind SOA adoption is not so much an IT need as it is a business need,” says Sameer Samat, VP of engineering and development for Kofax. “The days when a corporation could take two or three years to retool its IT systems in response to business change are waning. Today’s business faces mergers, acquisitions, traumatic events, and globalization that can cause dramatic changes to a business environment overnight. Enterprises need to be able to quickly restructure their IT systems in order to address these changes. This demand is pushing people to SOA.”
If your clients and prospects haven’t already begun to ask you if your ECM solutions are SOA compatible, be prepared to field this question in the near future. Recent studies indicate a rise in SOA adoption in the business community. According to Forrester Research, 89% of large enterprises, 61% of midsize organizations, and 40% of small businesses initiated an SOA strategy by the end of 2005. “Most larger organizations have completed one or more initial projects to gain experience and skills with SOA,” says Gershon. “Often these are point-to-point solutions between systems where one party has provided a Web service definition. The programming toolkits for SOA are now in their second or third generation, and this maturity is greatly facilitating these efforts. Over time, smaller organizations have incentive to embrace SOA since they typically cannot afford expensive, fully integrated ERP systems and can leverage SOA to gain flexibility in their integration efforts.”
What Makes An ECM Product SOA Compliant?
With the recent buzz surrounding SOA, many vendors have begun to label their products as SOA compatible or compliant. However, this terminology does not mean the same thing to all people. So, what exactly makes an application, particularly an ECM application, SOA based? Unfortunately, there isn’t currently one clear-cut answer to that question.
“Most applications can be adapted to participate in an SOA environment, even if they were not initially designed for SOA,” says Gershon. “Generally, this entails creating XML [extensible markup language]-based interfaces to programming APIs [application program interfaces] that can be invoked using SOAP [simple object access protocol]/HTTP standards.”
However, these interfaces aren’t what many consider to be a truly SOA-based application. “Most ECM products, as they currently exist, are a packaged set of functionality,” says Samat. “For example, a single ECM product may include several different document management, workflow, and records management tools. To be truly SOA compliant, those sets of functionality need to be transformed into discrete components that can be accessed, consumed, and reused as individual services in multiple organizations throughout an enterprise.”
SOA And The ECM VAR
Many industry experts feel that if SOA continues to be adopted and continues to leverage ECM as a service, it will allow ECM to realize its place as true infrastructure and become as pervasive to an enterprise as e-mail. This would have a profound impact on ECM VARs. “While opportunities to hardwire an ECM system with other applications will always exist, SOA will place demands on the channel to move beyond individual technology or solution sales and become more knowledgeable about entire business processes and workflows,” says Paul Lord, president and CEO of Westbrook Technologies. “For example, if a VAR is going to sell an ECM solution to the mortgage industry, it will need to know the mortgage application process from cradle to grave and how every piece of the ECM system it installs will touch every other aspect of that business. Of course, these VARs will also need to complement this business knowledge with the technical knowledge to be able to build and deploy SOA-based technologies.”
Personnel changes or additions may be necessary to gain the skill sets to succeed in an SOA business environment. First, you may need to employ people who have worked for large enterprises and understand how business workflows are structured in large organizations. Second, you may need to surround yourself with programmers who are certified on Microsoft, Java, HTTP, and other open standards.
The VARs that can learn the new design approaches and programming techniques for SOA will be in a position to significantly expand their markets. “SOA-savvy VARs will be more valuable to their customers because each business application they wrap with a service becomes a reusable resource to meet other business integration needs,” says Gershon. “A successful project to implement a few business services might easily be expanded into broader business opportunities. Furthermore, any middleware or value-added services they provide will gain wider market potential within a customer or for other customers. For example, a middleware service that places exceptions into a human workflow for resolution could be invoked more easily by various systems on the client side and could be used to interface with a variety of vendor products on the workflow engine side.”
SOA provides an opportunity for VARs to get beyond tinkering with individual ECM building blocks and siloed applications and begin knitting together applications across an enterprise. With SOA, a VAR can take the time once necessary to configure one particular ECM application and configure a complete IT solution for its customers. Much as SOA may enable ECM to take its place as true infrastructure, it may also allow the ECM VARs that become adept at deploying SOA-based solutions to become true IT extensions for their clients.