Who do you call when SOA software breaks?

The idea behind SOA (service-oriented architecture) is that instead of developing monolithic applications, businesses should build “services,” typically web services, that do specific tasks. These services can then be combined in all kinds of useful ways.

This is not a new idea but the latest step in a progression of similar ideas. First subroutines, then libraries, then objects, then components, and now services. Each step offers better encapsulation than its predecessor and comes closer to delivering on the promise of making it possible to assemble software out of modular pieces.

There are challenges to making all this work, and they are not primarily technical challenges. As Gerald Weinberg says, “it’s always a people problem.”

If different groups are publishing services that combine to make the software someone uses, who do they call when something breaks? This is not an insurmountable problem, but it’s not trivial either. When someone can’t get their work done because software isn’t working and they call you for help, it’s hard to tell them that you just provide a “service” and that someone else is responsible for their problem. You may be telling them the truth, but it sounds like a run-around.

When you provide a service that another group uses, how do you make sure they understand how to use it correctly? Software can verify that the correct data types come in: this field should be a number, this one text between 5 and 12 characters long, etc. But software doesn’t assure that the caller understands what they should be passing your service to get back what they really want. This too is a people problem.

How do you keep track of all the services you depend on? Who is responsible for monitoring them?

Using third-party commercial services is probably simpler than using a service developed in a different part of your own company. With commercial service providers, there are contracts (technical and legal) with service level agreements. And since money changes hands, companies have structures in place to monitor such things. But when you’re using software developed by your counterpart three floors up in another department, there’s probably not as much infrastructure in place. And if there is, it’s easier to circumvent.

These problems all go under the heading of SOA governance. It’s useful to give complex things a name, but doing so can obscure complexity. You can’t make the problems go away by forming a SOA governance committee.

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