SOA Appliances – Forward Into the Past?

Although back at school, my history profs adhered to the party line that history doesn’t repeat itself (because that oversimplifies matters), in actuality it does. As we’ve been observed on numerous occasions, in this business, history definitely goes round in cycles. And one of the most recent examples of that is the emergence of XML appliances to offload some of the most compute-intensive tasks involved with SOA.

That was one of the topics of one of Dana Gardner’s recent podcast where we threw IBM’s Jim Ricotta, IBM’s GM of appliances in the software group (and head of DataPower before IBM acquired it), on the spot. Ricotta indicated that SOA has been a sweet spot for appliances because of a couple reasons.

First, that the SOA market being built on standards means that the prospective market becomes wide enough for vendors to address. He gave the historical parallel with routers. “If you look at networking products, what really made routers and other types of networking such big horizontal businesses was that there were standards. The first routers were software products that ran on UNIX Boxes.” The other driver is that SOA – like the 7-layer ISO architecture for open networking before that, was designed in such a way that you could plop devices into different tiers without disrupting the rest of your technology stack.

Of course, appliances are hardly new. Back in the 80s we called them turnkey systems where you bought a special piece of hardware for that CADCAM, finite scheduling, data warehouse, or other system because (1) the hardware of the day was too slow, or (2) more likely, the vendor just wanted to lock you in. In that event, maybe we can say that history’s changed.

But, as fellow panelist Todd Biske pointed out, maybe SOA’s tiered architecture enables you to plunk in appliances, but he warns you shouldn’t just buy them simply because they’re available. Dana’s now posted the session online, which included Jim Kobielus, Brad Shimmin, Biske and myself – and which later covered BPEL4People. We learned some valuable pointers about architecting with and without appliances from the session, and maybe you will too.