Is SOA dead?

There has been a lot of fuss since the start of the new year around the theme “SOA is dead”. Much of this has been attributed to Anne Thomas Manes blog entry on the Burton Groups blog, here.

Infoworlds Paul Krill jumper on the bandwagon with a SOA obituary, qouting Annes work and say “SOA is dead but services will live on”. A quick fire response came on a number of fronts, like this one from Duane Nickull at Adobe, and then this from James Governor at Redmonk, where he charismatically claims, “everything is dead”.

First up, many times in my career, and James touches on a few of the key ones, since we were there together, or rather, I took advantage of his newness and thirst for knowledge as a junior reporter, to explain to him how mainframes worked, and what the software could be made to do. I knew from 10-years before I met James that evangelists and those with an agenda, would often claim something was “dead”. It came from the early 1980’s mainframe “wars” – yes, before there was a PC, we were having our own internal battles, this was dead, that was dead, etc.

What I learned from that experience, is that technical people form crowds. Just like the public hangings in the middle ages, they are all too quick to stand around and shout “hang-him”. These days it’s a bit more complex, first off there’s Slashdot, then we have the modern equivalent of speakers corner, aka blogs, where often those who shout loudest and most frequently, get heard more often. However, what most people want is not a one sided rant, but to understand the issues. Claiming anything is dead often gives the claimer the right not to understand the thing that is supposedly “dead” but to just give reasons why that must be so and move on to give advice on what you should do instead. It was similar debate last year that motivated me to document my “evangelsim” years on the about page on my blog.

The first time I heard SOA is dead, wasn’t Annes blog, it wasn’t even as John Willis, aka botchagalupe on twitter, claims in his cloud drop #38 him and Michael Cote of Redmonk last year. No sir, it was back in June 2007, when theregister.co.uk reprinted a Clive Longbottom, Head of Research at Quocirca, under the headline SOA – Dead or Alive?

Clive got closest to the real reasons of why SOA came about, in my opinion, and thus why SOA will prevail, despite rumours of its’ demise. It is not just services, from my perspective, it is about truly transactional services, which are often part of a workflow process.

Not that I’m about to claim that IBM invited SOA, or that my role in either the IBM SWG SOA initiative, or the IBM STG services initiative was anything other than as a team player rather than as a lead. However, I did spend much of 2003/4 working across both divisions, trying to explain the differences and similarities between the two, and why one needed the other, or at least its relationships. And then IBM marketed the heck out of SOA.

One of the things we wanted to do was to unite the different server types around a common messaging and event architecture. There was  almost no requirement for this to be syncronous and a lot of reasons for it to be services based. Many of us had just come from the evolution of object technology inside IBM and from working on making Java efficient within our servers. Thus, as services based approach seemed for many reasons the best one. 

However, when you looked at the types of messages and events that would be sent between systems, many of them could be cruicial to effective and efficient running of the infrastructure, they had in effect, transactional charateristics. That is, given Event-a could initiate actions A, then b, then c and finally d. While action-d could be started before action-c, it couldn’t be started until action-b was completed, and this was dependent on action-a. Importantally, none of these actions should be performed more than once for each instance of an event.

Think failure of a database or transactional server. Create new virtual server, boot os, start application/database server, rollback incomplete transactions, take over network etc. Or similar.

Around the same time, inside IBM, Beth Hutchison and others at IBM Hursley, along with smart people like Steve Graham, now at EMC, and Mandy Chessell also of IBM Hursley were trying to solve similar trascational type problems over http and using web services.

While the Server group folks headed down the Grid, Grid Services and ultimately Web Service Resource  Framework, inside IBM we came to the same conclusion, incompatible messages, incompatible systems, different architectures, legacy systems etc. need to interoperate and for that you need a framework and set of guidelines. Build this out from an infrastructure layer, to an application level; add in customer applications and that framework; and then scale it in any meaningful, that need more than a few programmers working concurrently on the same code, or on the same set of services, and what you needed was a services oriented architecture.

Now, I completely get the REST style of implementation and programming. There is no doubt that it could take over the world. From the perspective of those frantically building web mashups and cloud designs, already has. In none of the “SOA is dead” articles has anyone effectively discussed syncronous transactions, in fact apart from Clive Longbottoms piece, no real discussion was given to workflow, let alone the atomic transaction.

I’m not in denial here of what Amazon and Google are doing. Sure both do transactions, both were built from the ground-up around a services based architecture. Now, many of those who argue that “SOA is dead” are often those who want to move onto the emporers new clothes. However, as fast as applications are being moved to the cloud, many businesses are nowhere in sight moving or exploiting the cloud. To help them get there, they’ll need to know how to do it and for that they’ll need a roadmap, a framework and set of guidelines, and if it includes their legacy applications and systems, how they get there, For that, they’ll likely need more than a strategy, they’ll need a services “oriented” architecture.

So, I guess we’ve arrived at the end, the same conclusion that many others have come to. But for me it is always about context.

I have to run now, literally. My weekly long run is Sunday afternoon and my running buddy @mstoonces will show up any minute. Also, given I’m starting my new job, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to respond to your comments, but I welcome the discussion!

4 Responses to “Is SOA dead?”


  1. 1 Mark Rittmayer January 11, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    How can something be dead that was never alive. A soluton concept that was overmarketed in an attempt to get customers to pay for moving in the direction that the investment was made. (aka IBM style)

    Try to tell a Bank or Insurance company that providing data for a consumer to make a decision is called “cheese” and they will be off to the cheese shop.

    The real question in cloud services is why I can’t watch the eagles beat the giants on my PC and be a potato with no decision to be made other than second guessing the coach?

    BR/MCR

  2. 2 Robert Young April 15, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    The problem with SOA, pretty much from the getgo, was that it was pushed by the anti-RDBMS folk, largely from the java/web crowd. What they tried to do was: 1) reinvent the era of siloed COBOL programs with siloed data, albeit with a lower case syntax, and thus 2) undertake to implement ACID in each and every application, just like was done in the 1960’s. Dr. Codd knew better, which ticked off the IMS folk, and was rewarded with Chamberlin writing SQL. SOA, xml, java, and such were reactionary attempts by coders to establish a coders’ permanent employment regime.

    SOA was all about putting GUI lipstick on 30 or even 40 year old mainframe applications; at least in the Enterprise systems I worked on since 2001. It was not, nor could it ever be, a solution to any real problem. The Emperor’s New Clothes critiques began to appear very soon, just not from the vendors who wanted to profit.

    Those who believe that control of transactions belongs anywhere other than the database are just wrong. Full stop. Those that try it will either fail miserably or get sued, or both.

    For simple read-only queries, MySql is just fine. One needs only a sql parser fronting the file system, and MySql was designed to do that. IBM may well get Sun and replace all that DB2 infrastructure with a database called DB2, but just re-labeled MySql. Poetic justice that would be.


  1. 1 Life is visceral « Adventures in systems land Trackback on January 11, 2009 at 7:25 pm
  2. 2 Dana Gardner’s BriefingsDirect mobile edition Trackback on January 12, 2009 at 7:56 am

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About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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