SOA what

There is a core disconnect between what gets analysts and journalists excited, and what gains traction with the customers who consume the technologies that keep our whole ecosystem in business. OK, guilty as charged, we analysts get off on hearing about what’s new and what’s breaking the envelope, but that’s the last thing that enterprise customers want to hear. Excluding reference customers (who have a separate set of motivations that often revolve around a vendor productizing something that would otherwise be custom developed), most want the tried and true, or at least innovative technology that at least has matured the rough spots and is no longer version 1.

It’s a thought that crystallized as we bounced impressions of this year’s IBM SOA Impact event with colleagues like Dorothy Alexander and Marcia Kaufman, who shared perceptions that, while this year’s headlines or trends seemed a bit anticlimactic, that there was real evidence that customers were actually “doing” whatever it is that we associate with SOA.

Forget about the architectural journeys that you’ve heard about SOA; SOA is an enterprise architectural pattern that is a means to an end. It’s not a new argument; it was central to the SOA is dead debate that flared up with Anne Thomas Manes’ famous or infamous post of almost a year and a half ago, and of the subsequent debates and hand wringing that ensued.

IBM’s so-called SOA conference, Impact, doesn’t include SOA in its name, but until now SOA was the implicit rationale for this WebSphere middleware stack conference to exist. But more and more it’s about the stack that SOA enables, and more and more, about the composite business applications that IBM’s SOA stack enables. IBM won’t call it the applications business. But when you put vertical industry frameworks, business rules, business process management, and analytics together, it’s not simply a plumbing stack. It becomes a collection of software tools and vertical industry templates that become the new de facto applications that bolt atop and aside the core application portfolio that enterprises already have and are not likely to replace. In past years, this conference was used to introduce game changers, such as the acquisition of Webify that placed IBM Software firmly on the road to verticalizing its middleware.

This year the buzz was about something old becoming something new again. IBM’s acquisition of Cast Iron, as dissected well by colleagues Dana Gardner and James Governor, reflects the fact that after all these years of talking flattened architectures, especially using the ESB style, that enterprise integration (or application-to-application, or A2A) hubs never went out of style. There are still plenty of instances of packaged apps out there that need to be interfaced. The problem is no different from a decade ago when the first wave of EAI hubs emerged to productize systems integration of enterprise packages.

While the EAI business model never scaled well in its time because of the need for too much customization, experience, commoditization of templates, and emergence of cheap appliances provided economic solutions to this model. More importantly, the emergence of multi-tenanted SaaS applications, like, Workday and many others, have imposed a relatively stable target data schema plus a need of integration of cloud and on-premises applications. Informatica has made a strong run with its partnership with Salesforce, but Informatica is part of a broader data integration platform that for some customers is overkill. By contrast, niche players like Cast Iron which only do data translation have begun to thrive with a Blue Chip customer list.

Of course Cast Iron is not IBM’s first appliance play. That distinction goes to DataPower, which originally made its name with specialized appliances that accelerated compute-intensive XML processing and SSL encryption. While we were thinking about potential synergy, such as applying some of DataPower’s XML acceleration technology to A2A workloads, IBM’s middleware head Craig Hayman responded to us that IBM saw Cast Iron’s technology as a separate use case. But they did demonstrated that the software of Cast Iron could, and would, literally run on DataPower’s own iron.

Of course, you could say that Cast Iron overlaps the application connectors from IBM’s Crossworlds acquisition, but those connectors, which were really overlay applications (Crossworlds used to call them “collaborations”), have been repurposed by IBM as BPM technology for WebSphere Process Server. Arguably, there is much technology from IBM’s Ascential acquisition focused purely on data transformation that also overlaps here. But Cast Iron’s value add to IBM is the way those integrations are packaged, and the fact that they have been developed especially for integrations to and from SaaS applications – no more and no less. IBM has gained the right sized tool for the job. IBM has decided to walk a safe tightrope here; it doesn’t want to weigh Cast Iron’s simplicity (a key strength down) with added bells and whistles from the rest of its integration stack. But the integration doesn’t have to go in one direction –weighing down Cast Iron with richer but more complex functionality. IBM could go the opposite direction and infuse some of this A2A transformation as services that could be transformed and accelerated by the traditional DataPower line.

This is a similar issue that IBM has faced with Lombardi, a deal that it closed back in January. They’ve taken the obvious first step in “blue washing” the flagship Lombardi Teamworks BPM product, which is now rebranded IBM WebSphere Lombardi Edition and bundled with WebSphere Application Serve 7 and DB2 Express under the covers. The more pressing question is what to do with Lombardi’s elegantly straightforward Blueprint process definition tool and IBM WebSphere BlueWorks BPM, which is more of a collaboration and best practices definition rather than modeling tool (and still in beta). The good news is that IBM is trying the right thing in not cluttering Blueprint (now rebranded IBM BPM Blueprint), but the bad news is that there is still confusion with IBM’s mixed messages of a consistent branding umbrella but uncertainty regarding product synergy or convergence.

Back to the main point however: while SOA was the original impetus for the Impact event, it is now receding to a more appropriate supporting role.