The preaSOAic era

I came across a new computer-related term the other day: the “preaSOAic” era. SOA stands for Service Oriented Architecture and – together with Enterprise Architecture (EA) – form the two hottest buzz-words in the business computing world.

The SOA ideology envisages recasting a company or public sector institution’s myriad software applications into a series of services that are open to each other via the Web and have formalised methods for exchanging messages and data. By turning software applications into services all the different business processes and databases of an institution should be able to co-operate merrily with each other. It is hoped that this will avoid the usual situation that most companies find themselves in, where there are many applications spread across dozens of departments, all with their own databases, most of which are extremely reluctant to talk to each other or use each other’s data. In this “preaSOAic” era there is the potential for massive amounts of data duplication (referred to as ‘data silos’) and general muddle. It is generally portrayed as a period when large amounts of staff time are spent simply taking data from one computer application and [manually] entering it into another.

SOA is potentially a huge paradigm shift for an organisation, not only for the computer development team, but also for the business processes that link departments and functions. The recognition of the potential for large scale ‘reordering’ of the way information is handled within an organisation has led to increasing interest in the second concept: Enterprise Architecture. This involves a formal process of analysing and articulating a company’s fundamental organising business logic (i.e. what it actually does on a day-to-day basis) and activities, and tries to work out how the ICT infrastructure should go about modelling this. Frankly, it’s big brain stuff, but research by Harvard Business School seems to suggest that organisations that get it right can lower their ICT costs and be more effective and efficient in their day-to-day activities.

The commercial world has been pretty heavily engaged with this in the last few years and the education community is now starting to take notice. JISC is starting to articulate the ideas of SOA and EA to its community of higher and further education institutions and has started to fund a series of pilots. As part of this work, I’ve been commissioned to help out by providing technical reporting and editorial support for these activities and I’m off to Glasgow next week to learn more at the OpenGroup’s annual Enterprise Architecture Practitioners conference. As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is all ‘adult material’ and so I’ll probably require some light relief: I’ll be on the hunt for a vegeterian haggis or two and perhaps a wee dram.

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