Friday, 31 August 2007 09:20

SOA – Laser Surgery for the Business Analyst?

Written by Steve Craggs
Information technology initiatives come and go, and it seems that many of them are pretty self-serving, making the life of the programmer better, but not giving much help to the business analyst. However, one topical initiative at the moment could really make a difference – service-oriented architecture, or SOA.

SOA is the flavor of the moment in the IT industry. It describes an architecture where IT assets are assembled into reusable ‘services’ that can be easily accessed from anywhere in a standard fashion, without the caller needing any knowledge of the service location or technology environment. So far, this is sounding pretty IT-centric. But the key point about SOA is that these services are business-oriented – that is, each service represents a discrete business operation. For example, a service might be ‘Get Customer Details’, or ‘Calculate Invoice’. Contrast this with the typical situation in many organizations where business operations are only visible at a very coarse level. A company might have a loan approval application, but operations within this application all occur on IT boundaries and are, therefore, not visible in a business context.

So, SOA opens the eyes of the business analyst, making it possible to have a much clearer view of IT-supported business operations in real-time. This improved level of granularity, where IT activity can be displayed in terms of individual business operations, offers significant opportunities to improve business effectiveness in numerous different areas.

Operational Analysis

An obvious benefit of this improved level of vision is the ability to carry out enhanced analysis of operations. Assuming that the necessary monitoring tools are in place, it now becomes possible to get a much-improved picture of operations within a business context. For instance, it might become obvious that a particular process is being impacted because it is too often resulting in a supervisory approval step being executed, prompting an analysis to identify why this is the case, and to suggest a resolution. Maybe the conditions under which supervisor approval is required are too stringent, and need to be modified.

Another benefit of the improved visibility and granularity is that historical information of service execution can be analysed to determine any trends. This can be very valuable when looking for ways to continually improve process effectiveness and performance. Of course, this information is available without SOA, but probably at a much coarser level. Having the information at the level of individual SOA services enables greater accuracy and the opportunity for greater gains.

Not only does the improved visibility offer opportunities to analyse and improve processes in a historical fashion, based on operational performance statistics, but because the information is available real-time, it may be possible to identify situations requiring action more rapidly. With a clearer view of what is happening at the time, it may be possible to identify processing exceptions and take remedial action, as required. This leads on to the next area for improvements, namely, automation.

Automation

IT organizations make heavy use of automation. Systems management tools and monitors watch over system operations, looking out for exceptions such as running out of space in a file, network failures and a myriad of other conditions that affect IT system performance. Automation routines are built to take the necessary action to limit the effect of any problems or exceptions. When the conditions defining the exception occur, these routines kick into life without any operator intervention being required. But this is all at the technical operations level.

However, with the improved visibility of operations that SOA delivers, the same opportunities are made possible within a business context. The equivalent technology to system monitors for IT needs is BAM (Business Activity Monitoring). BAM tools can display information reflecting operational performance in business terms, and also make it possible to define business events with associated automatic actions to be taken when that event or combination of events occurs. At the Executive Dashboard level, the information might relate to selected key performance indicators (KPIs) but, at the real-time level, these events could cover any recognized business operations exception. This all becomes possible because IT operations can be viewed in the context of these business services as opposed to programs and routines.

Compliance

A particular use-case of this ability to monitor IT operations with a business eye, and detect business-oriented events, is compliance management. Once again, the improvements in this area are the result of being able to see into IT operations at the business service level. As an example, suppose a company has built an SOA service for raising supplier purchase orders. Regulations or internal policies might want to set limits for the exposure to a specific supplier, in which case the creation of the purchase orders could be tracked in real-time and an event could be defined when this limit is approaching, or indeed exceeded. This event could now automatically put a brake on PO creation or raise an alert with a compliance officer.

But things do not have to be as simple as this example. Because, in a service-oriented environment, IT is broken up into business services, the right sort of BAM tool can now correlate information about the execution and performance of these services across the enterprise. This enables business analysts to define much more complex events that signal matters of importance in terms of overall operations, enabling compliance to be managed much more effectively at a real-time, granular level.

Summary

Service-oriented architecture may sound like a purely IT-internal initiative, but in reality it has many implications for the business analyst world. It can be the laser surgery that improves the analyst’s eyesight, offering visibility of individual functions within the business process in real-time, thereby enabling a range of opportunities to enhance business performance, effectiveness and efficiency. However, a final word of warning – SOA will only be able to deliver these benefits if business analysts get involved throughout the SOA planning and deployment activities. Success will depend on ensuring that IT build the right services, at the right level of granularity, and this will require constant input from the business analyst community. Getting the technical and business specialists working in the same team is the challenge facing many SOA adopters today.


Steve Craggs is co-founder and Director of Lustratus (www.lustratus.com), an analyst firm specializing in all aspects of business integration. Steve is recognized worldwide as a thought leader in SOA and related market areas, bridging the gap between the IT and business worlds. Steve is also Vice-Chairman of the Integration Consortium, a global not-for-profit consortium for all companies interested in sharing information and experience related to business integration.

 

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