Hold the front page – SOA actually works!

Cautious optimism isn’t news – but I am cautiously optimistic about Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). We all know the trouble with new technologies is that they get over-hyped. Vendors are desperate to convince us that they are selling the “next big thing” – the product or service that will magically cut costs, stop down-time and increase functionality.

SOA has already been the next big thing – but has since been surpassed by all the talk about Cloud Computing. Meanwhile, I think, SOA is actually beginning to work. If you are a CIO, you will have seen the on-stage demos and powerpoints showing how you can just “plug and play” legacy systems and databases through the middleware layers, and build new applications by just dragging and dropping “services” icons.

Well, of course, it’s not that good – or that easy! One of the awful truths of IT is that last decade’s “cutting-edge differentiator” is next decade’s awful legacy. If you are an airline, your predecessors started investing in IT in the 1960s, about the time that 747s were introduced.

So in BA – as with many other airlines – we are engaged in renewing our legacy systems. We decided about two years ago to do our renewals of core systems consistent with a genuine SOA “Common Architecture”. This is designed – eventually – to link up our selling, customer, operations and back office data and processes in real time. Its objective is to make change easier, quicker and cheaper. It should also help us with working with our partners in the oneworld alliance. We aim to achieve this by building a services and integration layer which links back-end services – whether newly-built or legacy – and connect them to the front end systems, whether those are ba.com, mobile or kiosks for our customers, or legacy desktops or user interfaces for our people.

Now it’s easy to write those words but hard to deliver them and, since I am sure everyone knows the theory, it is how we are getting on that is the interesting point. We spent some time agonising over which SOA stack to plump for. We plumped for Progress: others SOA stacks are – as they say – also available. We are delivering the Common Architecture through our SOA Centre of Excellence. This has developed standards and patterns, which have to be used in the development of the areas we are changing. The core infrastructure is now live and we have system-to-system messaging in place across the platform. This is going live in several area including bag messages, our new weight and balance for aircraft departure programme, and across our legacy cargo and flight operations areas.

So SOA is real not hype! We have here an IT architecture, design and delivery approach, which makes core business functions reusable and accessible. This is a profound and potentially revolutionary change because we have here a new approach to Software Engineering, which delivers IT that is built to change – not built to last! This enables our customers and our colleagues to use IT without being tied to massively expensive and time-consuming back-end changes. It offers the prospect of fast and cheaper business change!

Now, we have of course found major challenges in doing this. As ever, it’s the people-affecting issues that are most sensitive and challenging. SOA requires a shift in mindset. Instead of building separate systems, software engineers and developers are now engaged in building one interlocking Common BA Architecture. This means that there have to be rigidly observed “building regulations”. We did this before with components on ba.com but SOA requires another step towards common standards and interfaces.

You need new tools, you need clarity about processes as well as systems, and you need a whole new set of new skills. But I believe the benefits in business agility, speed and, of course, last but not least, cost are genuine – even mouth-watering!

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