Service-Oriented Architecture Faces Hurdles

January 2007
By Rita Boland

Personnel need education, defined goals to make loosely coupled Web services a benefit to government.

Service-oriented architecture has been a major buzzword throughout the U.S. Defense Department for several years, yet implementation has been slow and troubled. Private industry giants such as Amazon. com have been employing it, and the government is striving to take advantage of the concept to improve network centricity and information sharing. A recent study sponsored by a group of companies surveyed knowledge and use of the architecture within the federal government. The study identified several barriers to integration, including that less than half of federal information technology specialists are familiar with it.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is built around a collection of loosely coupled services that communicate among each other. The reusable services have well-defined, platform-independent interfaces. SOA places critical applications into an enterprise to allow different users to share functionality. The concept integrates disparate architectures and can move information out of stovepipe applications and into a more interoperable environment.

The study, titled SOA What? Who and What is Driving SOA Adoption in the Federal Government?, was conducted by a coalition of companies: Merlin International, Englewood, Colorado; Active Endpoints Incorporated, Shelton, Connecticut; AmberPoint Incorporated, Oakland, California; Bea Systems Incorporated, San José, California; Reactivity, Belmont, California; and Systinet Corporation, Burlington, Massachusetts. The goal of the study was to provide more insight into the SOA marketplace and to offer additional research and industry feedback, helping the federal government to gain a better understanding of SOA and the private sector to learn more about the federal SOA market. The study was based on survey responses from 196 federal information technology professionals—87 percent from civilian agencies and the remainder from the Defense Department.

In the study, Defense Department respondents identified ownership battles between agencies and lack of SOA knowledge within the government information technology community as the top two barriers to governmentwide adoption of SOA. Civilian agency respondents cited lack of SOA knowledge within the federal information technology community as the greatest challenge, followed by a dearth of market drivers for information technology contractors. Half of those surveyed who had implemented SOA in their agencies listed a deficit of SOA knowledge as the most significant obstacle in the process. 

John Trauth, executive vice president of government systems, Merlin International, explains that information technology professionals are unsure both of what SOA is and of how to take advantage of it. “The biggest aspect of having SOA implemented is education,” Trauth states.

The report also found that only 22 percent of federal information technology professionals labeled their SOA implementation as a total success, though more than 70 percent would recommend moving to a SOA environment to other agencies. “Far and away, whether they were successful or not, most of the folks who had experience with SOA were willing to recommend it to others to use,” says Mark Zalubas, chief technology officer for Merlin International.

Zalubas seeks to clarify SOA by explaining that in many respects it is less a technology than a strategy. “It’s a way of decomposing concepts and functionality in a very functional way,” he explains. “It’s more about business functionality that can be knitted together.”

For example, when a clothing shop starts selling goods online, it requires several business functions on its Web site, including a catalog, a shopping cart and methods for accepting payment and for shipping and tracking packages. With the advent of Web services—Web sites used by computers instead of by humans—the shop no longer has to build all its own functions. The company can obtain Web services for processing charges via a credit card company and mailing services through a shipping company. The clothing shop could format the services so it appears that the store is doing the charging and tracking instead of the other companies. 

SOA generally requires a linking of existing services along with customized services created for an organization’s specific needs. As SOA evolves, more services become available and agencies need to develop fewer customized tools. In the federal arena, agencies could knit together services such as command and control, intelligence and logistics to provide a higher functionality.

Trauth explains the process of implementing SOA by using a telephone book for an analogy. An agency trying to build a composite application would go to the “telephone book” of Web services and pick those services that pertain to its objective. For instance, if the organization were working on intelligence fusion, it would pick only Web-based intelligence that applies to its mission. “The way you build composite applications is up to you,” he states.

To overcome the identified barriers to SOA implementation, experts say education is key. As more information technology professionals and other government personnel become familiar and comfortable with the concept, integration will improve. Experts also believe that as SOA proves successful, agency turf battles will diminish. Joelle Gropper Kaufman, vice president, Reactivity, asserts that once a service is available, it will be easier for an agency to use it than to create a similar service. She states that as organizations approach SOA from scratch, tremendous ownership battles emerge. But if agencies approach SOA as a chance to share the information they already have, it results in a “success narcotic.”

Trauth thinks along similar lines, claiming once people see the benefits and efficiency gained through SOA, implementation barriers will begin to diminish. “I think it’s [about] education and cultural change,” he says. He adds that the government needs to be a thought leader in pushing the initiative to spur industry and to help agency personnel. Warfighters in the field could have more information if they could use command and control, intelligence and supply chain management Web services. SOA can help rapidly assemble disparate data to get the right information to troops faster.

Gropper Kaufman explains SOA application in the project Cursor on Target, which addresses delivering target information to the appropriate weapon delivery device. Though warfare is highly integrated, military branches use different targeting mechanisms. Cursor on Target personnel have built interfaces to the services’ various targeting systems that allow the collection and delivery of targeting data. The interface is a Web service. Using it, U.S. Army Special Forces could identify a target and enter the information into a computer, which would share the data with a U.S. Air Force computer. At the right time and in the right place, the Air Force would drop a weapon on the target. The project, which reduces friendly fire accidents, has been used in Afghanistan.

Gropper Kaufman says that without SOA, Cursor on Target would have cost millions of dollars and taken years of development because the systems are highly sensitive and proprietary. The SOA solution offered a standard, secure method for systems to communicate with one another. “That’s how SOA can deliver a fast benefit in signaling,” Gropper Kaufman states.

This information sharing among systems is one of SOA’s major benefits. Agencies are used to holding and controlling information as a source of power. However, the network-centricity trend is changing the methods by which government operates and is encouraging agencies to share data. Zalubas explains that the market will find a way to work around agencies that are difficult to do business with and will embrace those organizations willing to share. “It’s a huge paradigm change for most of these folks to share what they’ve always held close,” he states. SOA levels the information silos by making data reusable and shareable.

Other barriers to successful implementation include making SOA the focus instead of concentrating on agency objectives, not taking the time to truly understand SOA, not applying it correctly, trying to adopt all the SOA technologies on the market and having inflated expectations of SOA benefits. 

To make SOA work, Zalubas says agencies need to focus on their end goals, not on SOA itself. His recommended path is to focus on objectives primarily then decide which services will be useful. After getting their arms around higher level objectives, experts can start educating personnel about SOA. Gropper Kaufman echoes Zalubas’ statements and lays out four best practices for implementing the architecture.

First, define the mission and criteria for success. Second, distinguish between what will be infrastructure for services and what will be service logic. Organizations should focus creative energy on logic. Third, start with contained examples with which they can demonstrate success then share and integrate. Finally, document successes.

Trauth says the key step agencies must take is proper planning. “You have to come out with a solid plan. You can’t just build something and hope they come,” he shares. He asserts that government agencies that implement SOA will provide near-term and tactical advantages for their personnel by making systems reusable to leverage for future requirements.

Information technology professionals and others can educate themselves on SOA by talking with vendors and with integrators who have SOA practices in place, reading white papers and reports, and potentially performing internal studies and creating pilots. Trauth believes that adding discussion on SOA to conference agendas could make a difference in the architecture’s success. SOA is still in the early stages with few projects complete and more in the planning stages. Trauth expects SOA to become more prolific and to make a big difference in the next five to 20 years. 

According to the study, only 17 percent of federal information technology officials have implemented SOA, and only 4 percent of those were from Defense Department agencies. However, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Arlington, Virginia, is leading the way in transitioning the Defense Department to the architecture. Lt. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., director, DISA, and commander, Joint Task Force–Global Network Operations, and members of his senior staff have publicly acknowledged their commitment to SOA. In the initiatives section of DISA’s strategy, under the enterprise information environment heading, the agency lists goals for establishing a SOA center of excellence to lead Defense Department implementation and migration of “proprietary application interfaces and legacy information technology architectures to a SOA foundation based on open Web-services standards, including loosely coupled core enterprise services.”

 

Web Resources
SOA What? study: www.merlin-intl.com/SOAstudy.asp
DISA strategy: www.disa.mil/strategy/strategy_book.pdf