The topic of service-oriented architecture (SOA) is significantly broad, yet ambiguous enough to inspire a good deal of spirited discourse. There was ample evidence of this at Insurance Networking News’ 1st annual Web Services and SOA Summit in New York on Jan.23, where analysts, carrier representatives and vendors exchanged views over the course of the day.

Ron Schmelzer, managing partner at Baltimore, Md.-based SOA research and advisory group ZapThink LLC, urged attendees to view SOA less as a technology, than a philosophy.

To illustrate this point Schmelzer used the analogy of a forest. Just as a forest is a complex ecosystem of interdependent flora and fauna not just a collection of trees, he said, SOA is not merely a collection of systems. “SOA is something you do, not something buy,” he said.

Schmelzer said organizations looking to use SOA would be wise to employ a short-term incremental approach as opposed to the ambitious multi-year plans which are often the norm. “How do you eat an elephant,” he asked. “One bite at a time.”

One primary benefit of the incremental approach, he noted was a reduction in risk and project time. For a three-six month project the cost of failure is low, while the cost for three-five year plan is catastrophic. What’s more, by undertaking a long-term plan, IT is asking business not to change, he said.

It was precisely this need for IT departments to be cognizant of business goals in order to avoid a misalignment with the underlying business that colored the remarks of Piyush Singh, SVP and CIO of Cincinnati-based Great American Insurance Group.

“We have to talk in their terms, ” he said. “The very fact that someone from the business side knows the difference between .Net and Java is our fault. It should be immaterial to them what we are using.”

Singh said the top three challenges to SOA implementation are communication, communication and communication. “It’s not technology, ” he said. “It’s not getting sharp people who can come in and do the job–it’s really getting people to communicate and talk to each other.”

Just as IT is tasked with keeping contact with business units, it also can play a role in facilitating communication among them. “The business units don’t talk to each other, IT has step up,” he said, noting IT is uniquely positioned to spot redundant efforts by the units. “So business expects us to see those patterns across the business units, to provide the reuse capability across the board.”

Like Singh, Gary Plotkin, VP and CIO for The Hartford’s P&C operations, said SOA true value is to the business side of operations, not the IT department.

“If the business doesn’t get it, we all ultimately fail.” Plotkin added “If we can’t help to find a way to ensure that this drives business strategy, it doesn’t really matter what we buy from vendors.”

Yet, as CIO of a 198 year-old company with legacy systems dating back 47 years, Plotkin is bullish about SOA as tool to reuse and simplify IT infrastructure. Plotkin unveiled a chart that showed the interrelations between the 475 applications that the Hartford had running when Plotkin came on board as CIO. Plotkin has kept SOA principles fully in mind as he methodically whittled down that list.

“SOA is really about re-use,” he said, acknowledging that despite his wishes, some legacy systems are in place to stay.

ZapThink’s Schmelzer, concurred. “If you don’t embrace your legacy systems you can’t get reuse.”

This flexibility makes Schmelzer equally sanguine about the future of SOA. He views it as fundamental paradigm shift, likening it to the demise of client-server or rise of the Int rnet. “SOA is past its terrible twos and is entering its pre-teens,” he said, noting that critics of SOA have yet to articulate a compelling alternative.

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