Business Process Management: SOA's Reason for Being?

A service-oriented architecture (SOA) is supposed to bring flexibility to IT resources and lower costs by letting IT personnel reuse software components instead of coding from scratch. However, some experts have suggested that reuse -- the principal justification in most cost-benefit analyses for SOA -- might amount to just 10 percent.

Other analysts, such as Bill Rosser, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, have said that "I think the variation is much larger than that. [But] it takes a lot of energy, experience, background and foundation to get to significant savings."

For companies setting up SOAs, those savings may come sometime further down the line, in the longer term, he suggested.

"When you have the modules -- all of these libraries, repositories and registries and all of these capabilities [in an SOA] -- then when you put these things together you will come to a point where you will have a high degree of reuse ... But I think it is going to take a long time to get much of a big library assembled to make it easy for companies to make that happen."

SOA is just an architectural approach. It creates services out of loosely coupled IT resources, such as databases and applications, using a customized Web browser or rich Internet application client. In the practical world, however, SOA is a solution sold to enterprises, including software products such as an enterprise service bus, governance solution, monitoring system, and more.

A common complaint by business management when it comes to IT resources is that management wants an agile IT infrastructure that will meet the changing needs of the business. However, IT infrastructure tends to age and become static. Over time, such infrastructure fails to meet a business' evolving needs.

While SOA provides a flexible framework to tap into a business' existing legacy IT infrastructure, it doesn't necessarily solve the principal problems of business management. Management is interested in business processes, and maybe less interested in IT efficiency.

With all of the talk about SOAs, what is the reason for businesses to invest in an SOA? One answer, if you are IBM, is that businesses need an SOA to provide the basis for a business process management (BPM) system. That seemed to be the message in a recent Webinar called "Business Process Management Enabled by SOA" by Peter Rhys Jenkins, senior integration solutions architect at IBM.

Judging from Rhys Jenkins' talk, a BPM riding on top of an SOA is a marriage made in business heaven. They just go together. And the time seems ripe for BPMs and SOAs to conjoin, both in terms of business pressures and IT trends.

For instance, Rhys Jenkins cited an IBM poll of 765 CEOs worldwide as part of IBM's marketing materials. According to the survey, CEOs from top-performing companies were twice as likely to stress the need for business model innovation compared with the opinion of their counterparts in underperforming companies.

He also cited a finding from an InformationWeek "Research Outlook 2007" study of 300 business technology professionals. The study found that 65 percent of IT professionals plan to streamline or optimize their business processes in 2007.

Essentially, BPM is a way to encapsulate "tribal knowledge" in a company. It's difficult to get information about how workers do their jobs because workers fear the possibility that their jobs may be outsourced, Rhys Jenkins said.

As for the practical implications of a BPM riding on an SOA, Rhys Jenkins cited the case of investment company Wachovia, which saved $7.2 million by streamlining its new-accounts opening process. In addition to saving money, Wachovia saved time, whittling down its accounts-opening process from three days to just a couple of hours, Rhys Jenkins said.

SOA fits with BPM because it provides a medium for services. Services can be combined with other services to create a business process. A typical example is an ordering service that connects with a credit card billing service. Once you have the services identified, they become part of an SOA.

Sometimes BPM is disguised, Rhys Jenkins said. An example is compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act reporting requirements. When businesses document their processes to be in compliance with the law, which specifies certain accounting standards, they are actually doing BPM, he said.

In order for companies to properly do BPM, companies need software and expertise. If companies don't know what they are doing with BPM, they will have problems. To avoid that, Rhys Jenkins recommended that companies "make BPM a discipline, and make it somone's job."

Gartners' Rosser sees an overall synergistic fit between BPM and SOA.

"Both BPM and SOA are highly complementary ... but they certainly exist independently of each other," Rosser said. "I would be reluctant to do much in SOA without having BPM in the background as the source helping me to define what I want to do with my high-speed box."

Ron Schmelzer, an analyst with Zapthink, concurred in an e-mailed response.

"BPM and SOA not only fit hand in glove, but the only possible future direction of business process is service-oriented and SOA is process driven," he said. "So we don't see that the two areas will be distinct for that much further as long as the market continues to evolve in a service-oriented direction."

Schmelzer also added a caveat for those combining BPM and SOA solutions.

"Not all of today's BPM tools build processes in a service-oriented way, nor do all SOA tools implement business process."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.