Brian Reily, Office of Naval Research

December 2006
By Brian Reily, Chief Information Officer, Office of Naval Research

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

Without a doubt, service-oriented architecture (SOA) and specifically the impact it will have on how personnel think about and deploy business services will affect the way the Office of Naval Research (ONR) does business. As others have stated in this column, the biggest challenge will be the processes and thinking that must be put in place to make the technology work.

The ONR administers all the Department of the Navy’s basic science research, technology research and technology development funding—$2.5 billion in grants and contracts annually. In general, the ONR focuses on three areas: Navy Right Now, which involves acquiring and deploying the best available solutions to today’s problems as quickly as possible; Next Navy, which entails developing solutions for the high-risk areas in acquisition programs where the ONR is investing in new products or ideas still under development; and Navy After Next, which sets the ONR apart from other Navy commands by enabling it to lay the groundwork through basic research and naval prototypes for emerging technologies to satisfy anticipated needs for the next decade and beyond.

To accomplish this mission, the ONR finds the best ideas and thinkers wherever they are located, from the deck of a destroyer to the back labs of a university. This same approach drives our information technology philosophy. We first locate the U.S. Defense Department discovery tools to leverage what is out there, only adding new services to the inventory when we must.

Unlike any other command, the ONR has customers that include all elements of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The office also works with the National Science Foundation, the National Air and Space Agency and the National Institutes of Health as well as others. In addition, it is closely coupled with more than 1,000 major universities throughout the world. From an information technology perspective, we tie into a very diverse set of users. Our information assurance concerns are paramount but are balanced with our need to foster collaboration to encourage the sharing of ideas.

For all of these reasons, an SOA environment is critical. SOA is a collection of services that communicate with each other. The communication can involve either passing data or two or more services coordinating some activity, which requires some means of connecting services to each other. SOA is not tied to a specific technology and may be implemented using a range of interoperability standards. It also provides a view of the software architecture.

Establishing governance across the entire organization is the most critical and most difficult first step. I have personally established information technology governance processes in a number of commands, and it is never easy or quick. Senior leader support is always strong, but the middle managers, those with their own information technology capabilities, are always reluctant participants. Getting this group to understand that shared capability—the SOA environment—will provide greater performance takes patience and a little bit of luck. In many cases, this new approach requires a level of trust from the middle managers as their systems are merged and integrated into the new architecture. Functions once done inside the command are now done outside the command, and this requires a level of faith not often seen within the Defense Department’s information technology community—and for good reason. Those of us who have been in the department for a long while were taught not to trust that which we do not control. SOA requires a different attitude: If I can’t get the data or service from you, I will get it somewhere else within the Defense Department. This is radical thinking for most information technology organizations but very healthy for our customers, the warfighters.

Implementing SOA—combining legacy systems with new services—increases the importance of enterprise architecture. Knowing the applications and data environments will be critical to any successful deployment. Convincing senior leadership to do enterprise architecture is easier than it once was because we now have policies that require it. But unless you have a well-articulated vision and the enterprise architecture planning to implement the vision, migration to SOA will be painful. Cost and schedule pressures often encourage programmers to shortchange the critical step of using application programming interfaces (APIs) for all their development efforts. SOA can quickly become another information technology “silver bullet” that offers great promise but doesn’t produce.

The Defense Department’s budget is constrained, and those constraints will only get more severe in the future. The department’s information technology community must provide more with less. SOA is a critical technology that permits us to leverage the best capabilities of the past with easy integration of future capability and to accomplish all of this faster than our adversary can react. SOA technology is here and can do great things for the warfighter. But the old information technology fundamentals—governance, enterprise architecture and APIs—are the key elements to success.