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How to handle SOA vendor consolidation

While acquisition sprees reduce infrastructure choices, other factors keep a variety of SOA platforms available

The SOA concept -- developing a software architecture based on service components that can be mixed and matched as needed to reduce development time and increase application deployment flexibility -- is only a few years old, but the providers of SOA-supporting infrastructure are fast consolidating. Oracle captured the headlines with its acquisition of BEA Systems this spring, and Progress Software recently bought Iona Technologies.

That means the choices for infrastructure providers -- from enterprise service buses (ESBs) to shared code repositories -- is shrinking just as more companies are exploring SOA. A few vendors such as IBM and Oracle now offer the convenience of a soup-to-nuts SOA platform, but at the risk of locking in their customers to a proprietary stack or selling them more than they need as part of a suite or package.

For example, Delaware Electric had to fend off IBM's attempt to sell more than the utility needed, says CFO Garry Cripps. "IBM behaved like most vendors I deal with: They tried to up-sell me for the highest horsepower whether I needed it or not," he says. (Cripps is pleased with the IBM WebSphere Process Server he did buy to manage SOA services.)

Vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Itko, Software AG, Tibco, and WSO2 that offer specific SOA platform components will continue to exist. But some of them fear that because their customers increasingly are using platform offerings from the large vendors, they could be displaced by the larger vendor, either because it offers a similar component or doesn't integrate well with the smaller vendor's tool.

For example, Software AG says that IBM's claim of integration with and accommodation of other vendors' products is misleading, putting it at a disadvantage.

Not as simple as "soup to nuts" versus "best of breed"

But the choices in the SOA market are not so clearly between proprietary but integrated stacks and "best of breed," but rather nonintegrated components, says Randy Heffner, a Forrester Research analyst. That's because by its nature, SOA uses standard interfaces such as SOAP, WSDL, BPEL, and XML to connect services to each other. Thus, even a large vendor like IBM is forced to compete with a startup like WSO2.

In a true SOA approach, individual services can run over proprietary infrastructure, but the interfaces among them typically adhere to the established standards. That reduces lock-in risk to the infrastructure, not the applications running over them, Heffner says -- but only if IT avoids vendors' proprietary extensions to those standards. "There are a lot of extensions beyond the specifications," he notes.

Also, because most SOA efforts seek to reuse existing applications wherever possible, IT will have to do custom coordination no matter how integrated the SOA platform. That helps blunt the "one provider" argument.

"With SOA, there's a lot of legacy products, so you have to write your own pieces," said Brad Svee, manager of IT development at Concur Technologies, a provider of expense reporting and travel management services.

Enterprise architects assembling an SOA have three strategies, according to a recent Forrester study by Heffner. These include a single-vendor, "best of breed," or specialized approach (using a proprietary framework developed for or by the company).

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"Focusing on one vendor provides the benefit of reducing finger-pointing between vendors when things go wrong," Heffner says, but that doesn't mean having to choose a single provider for your SOA infrastructure. Instead, companies that don't want to manage lots of vendors for their SOA infrastructure can use an integrator to handle the various providers or choose a primary vendor that then manages the other providers. "Forrester's rule of thumb is to focus on a primary vendor without ruling out 'best of breed' substitutions," he says.

IT's challenge is to figure out the right way to deploy its architecture, which is where the SOA infrastructure choices come up. At a practical level, most companies already have some SOA infrastructure in place, such as EAI (enterprise application integration) middleware, Web services and related Web platforms, and messaging middleware. That established infrastructure often determines who will provide the rest of the SOA infrastructure, says Tim Hall, director of Hewlett-Packard's SOA Center.

For example, a company that has standardized on Oracle for these systems will likely go to Oracle for the rest of the SOA platform. But a company with heterogeneous systems in place is likely to continue buying "best of breed" components from a variety of vendors.

"You talk to major customers, and they have some flavor of middleware from all these companies. The question is it's not so much the issue of what you select but how do you use what you have [effectively]," Hall says. Almost every customer has middleware from different vendors, agrees Sandy Carter, IBM's vice president of SOA and WebSphere.

That heterogeneous reality means that many customers pick and choose their SOA infrastructure components as well, says Miko Matsumura, product marketing manager at Software AG: "Not all of our customers have every single component [that Software AG provides]."

A tour of SOA infrastructure providers

Vendors tend to promote themselves as offering pretty much everything a customer requires, says Forrester's Heffner. "All of them would say, 'We can do all or most all of what you need,'" directly or through partnerships.

Here's what the major providers actually offer themselves:

Hewlett-Packard: HP offers SOA governance tools and a services registry through its acquisition of Mercury Software, as well as quality management tools through its purchase of Talking Blocks.

IBM: Big Blue's SOA wares include an ESB, a process server, a portal, a mashup engine, an application server, and capabilities for business services. IBM's Tivoli unit provides services management software, and IBM's acquisition of AppSoft adds event processing.

Itko: The company provides SOA test and validation tools.

Microsoft: The software giant doesn't offer SOA products per se, but it positions products such as BizTalk Server and Windows Communication Foundation as an ESB without actually having an ESB in its product catalog.

Oracle: Its SOA arsenal includes an ESB, a BPEL process manager, business activity monitoring, and Web services management. Oracle also acquired a repository in its BEA buy.

Progress Software: The company is putting together a wide roster of SOA tools through aggressive acquisition, most recently of Iona for SOA services management. It has also bought ESB provider Sonic Systems, application infrastructure company Mindreef, Web services management vendor Actional, integration provider Pantero, and complex event processing firm Apama.

Software AG: The company offers a wide palette of SOA products for governance, design, runtime, business process management, and business activity monitoring, as well as a composite application framework. An ESB is on the roster, thanks to the company's acquisition of WebMethods.

Tibco: The vendor's offerings include a runtime platform, an ESB, and a registry.

WSO2: Taking the open source approach to SOA, WSO2 bills itself as a full-service provider, offering an ESB, a registry, identity management, a Web services application server, and a mashup server.