SOA and how to run a conference

I am currently at the SAP Teched conference in Berlin. I will write in a separate publication about the forthcoming version 7.1 of SAP MDM, but have a couple of quite separate observations to mention here. The first is a confirmation of what i have long believed:that going towards an SOA world is going to be very hard work. One customer here, Volkswagen Financial Services, described an ambitious project where they have taken a part of their business, which deals with fleet car hire, and moved wholesale to an SOA-based infrastructure. This project has been live a few months and is already showing some genuine benefits compared to the rather manually intensive system they had before, in terms of faster processing time for certain common business processes (which used to involve agents dealing with multiple applications) and in terms of improved data quality. However it is interesting that no formal cost/benefit analysis appears to have been done. Moreover this project, which involved 100 IT staff and 50 business people, took over five years to complete. I do not think this is much to do with the technology, but rather the sheer complexity of taking a cross functional view, involving different business lines agreeing on common terminology and data definitions, agreeing on the way in which the many new web services behave. There has also been a lot of change management needed to effectively get the front-line business users to accept the new system, which automates many tasks that they used to have direct control of.

I suspect that few companies have been quite so aggressive in their move to SOA as VW. A more typical conversation was with a gentleman at a German utility and resources company, who have been looking actively into SOA since 2006. They are only just putting their toe in the water now, putting in a very limited project with just a handful of web services, across a single process, in just one small subsidiary of their organisation. Even this limited pilot has not been entirely without its issues. One problem which has reared its head is how much more difficult it is to do debugging across a web services application which touches a whole series of different applications in its wake. If something goes wrong, then they have found it is a lot more fiddly to trace where exactly the fault lies, given the cross-application nature of the project. Again, this is a project driven by the IT department as an exercise in proving technology, rather than one with a quantified business case. I do not pretend that a few random conversations at a conference is a remotely scientific sample, but it seems clear that SOA is far from mainstream in many companies thus far, and that there are new issues to address compared to traditional applications. Not least of these is the need to sort out common master data definitions across the multiple applications affected.

On a separate note, those who read my blog regularly will know that a bugbear of mine is conferences that do not run on time or are disorganised – yes ETRE, that means you. By contrast, this conference is a testament to stereotypical Teutonic efficiency. Sessions start on time to the minute, and finish on time, to the minute. There are plenty of staff around to guide people around the large congress centre, and the pre-conference administration was exemplary. When I arrived I was handed not just a conference schedule, but a suggested set of lectures and meetings that were likely to be of interest specifically to me based on my MDM interests. If only all conferences could be run by Germans.