The Service-Oriented Business App

The term is new, but is a SOBA really different from an SOA?

Following on the heels of the , the service-oriented business application is generating the latest buzz in distributed computing. While distinguishing between SOA and SOBA isn't easy - since both terms are used to describe constructing application infrastructures from Web services - the idea is that SOBA can be deployed on top of SOA, or other infrastructure models. The term's creator positions SOBA as the ultimate incarnation of the client/server business application - ERP, CRM and others - that has become today's monolithic beast.

"A SOBA is a client/server application done right," says Charles Abrams, a Gartner research director, who coined the term more than two years ago. "It is a business application that is centered on Web services standards."

In Gartner's model, SOBA ranges from today's simple XML interfaces overlaid on a current application to a far more sophisticated application infrastructure that will evolve. Rudimentary SOBAs are legacy applications modified with a Web services interface based on . SOBA variants on the horizon include: best-of-breed components for broad deployment in horizontal or vertical markets; modular corporate suites from vendors such as Oracle and SAP; and SOBAs constructed from multiple services developed internally within corporations, sold by vendors or built by system integrators and service providers.

As the sophistication ratchets up, users will need tools such as metadata repositories to smooth data format issues along with Web services standards for functions such as reliable messaging, transactions, management and business process orchestration. Those standards are in various forms of development today and represent a major speed bump on the SOBA road. Eventually, SOBA will be wholly constructed using network-based application services - as discrete as validating a purchase order - that are combined on the fly with other services to execute a business process, such as a transaction with a business partner.

At some point, SOBA is expected to spell the doom of monolithic business applications by unlocking functions trapped today within ERP, CRM, supply chain and other applications, experts say. By 2008, more than 70% of companies will be using SOBAs to collaborate with business partners, Abrams predicts.

While many users and experts agree on the SOBA concept, they don't all agree on the terminology. Skeptics say that SOBA is just a Gartner label and not much has changed in the years since XML and its derivatives sparked the notion of standardized services running on a network.

"The idea is that down the road all this stuff magically starts working together, and at that point you have this ability to assemble application systems from these shared reusable services," says Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst with Burton Group. "Of course, that is the dream behind Web services in the first place."

To users, the terminology is less important than the process. Take Tyrone Paige, an application architect with JetBlue Airways in Forest Hills, N.Y., who says he's not familiar with SOBA despite being busy building an SOA and constructing a set of application services using technology from Microsoft and SOA Software. "Composite applications are on our [road map]. It sounds to me like SOBA is just a twist on composite applications. We plan to have business processes that will leverage our services," he says.

However, vendors seem to be latching onto the SOBA concept and, in some cases, the actual term. According to Gartner, the big four vendors driving toward SOBA are SAP, with its growing NetWeaver platform; Oracle, with its Platform Fusion; IBM Global Services, with its Services Oriented Modeling and Architecture that helps corporate users construct blueprints for building SOBAs; and Microsoft, which is retooling its infrastructure with a Web services middleware called Windows Communication Foundation (formerly Indigo) slated to ship in the next two years.

Vendors such as Webify, with its SOBA Fabric and SOBA Suites software, are betting on the concept and adopting the terminology.

SOBA makes sense for Fireman's Fund Insurance, which is using Webify's SOBA Fabric to create a catalog of services. Today, the company has a simple billing inquiry system that is a first step toward its goal of supporting complex transactions, such as loss notification or quote generation, using SOBAs that include error checking and transactional rules.

"We have been able to borrow a lot from our experience trying to do component-based development and from our object-oriented days," says Roger Cottman, IT product director for the Novato, Calif., company. "We have lots of initiatives underway to leverage this [SOBA] technology, but the level and depth to which we can apply these concepts, we just don't know yet."

4 questions to ask vendors

  • How are you deconstructing monolithic applications and exposing the functions of your software?
  • Are you using Web services specifications beyond simple Simple Object Access Protocol wrappers?
  • Are you participating in the creation of Web services standards such as those for transactions, reliable messaging and orchestration?
  • How do you plan to incorporate these standards into your applications/platforms?

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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