Much has been written about why SOA was such an important development, specifically in how it can help customers ease the burden of upgrading their systems and extend the usefulness of their existing applications. Jane Thomson, MD of Softworx, an EOH company and a distributor of Infor in Sub-Saharan Africa, says the occurring shift from application-centric development to SOA-centric development will help SOA deliver on its promises.
She explains that in the application-centric approach, the vendor releases regular updates to your software. Sometimes these are major upgrades but more often they are minor features or bug fixes. One of the problems with this approach is that there is no way to deliver an upgrade to the financial module, for instance, without affecting the other departments that depend on the ERP system.
This difficulty is a result of the way that ERP systems and enterprise applications evolved. In the early 1990s, Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) became popular as a means to increase time to market and competitiveness. Beginning in the mid-90s, ERP systems were all modified to meet the BPR paradigm. The approach was central control – a big, primary ERP solution with modules from the same vendor to support each function.
“The business environment has changed dramatically since then. Probably the biggest change is globalisation. SMEs are dealing with more complex business needs, distributed around the world, and their business systems were developed together to meet these near-term challenges. Rampant consolidation in manufacturing and other industries has resulted in companies operating multiple disparate business platforms, many of which were heavily customised or built in-house,” Thomson says.
Another important factor occurred: the promise of centralised control ran up against the reality that no single vendor, and no single ERP system, could support all the needs of a customer. So customers turned to products from niche vendors for best-in-class solutions, like supply chain management or financials, to supplement their existing ERP.
The result is that today, almost all companies have heterogeneous environments with a mishmash of applications and business platforms. An application-centric deployment approach has made keeping them all in synchronisation one big gigantic headache. SOA-centric development can help fix this problem. This model doesn’t deliver new functionality to the core product or through tightly-coupled modules, but as components that augment or enhance the ERP. They can operate as dependents to the core ERP, replacing functionality that used to reside in the big blob, or independently to support a completely new set of business processes.
“This model gives customers much more flexibility as to when and how they adopt new functionality, allowing IT to respond with standardised solutions a lot quicker. The real transformation here is that the ERP system as we know it will become a thing of the past. The reality today is that businesses operate centrally and distributed, so their applications must also be able to do so,” Thomson says.
She adds however that this will not happen overnight. Large enterprise applications will remain a part of the IT landscape for a long time, and these must be supported with feature pack upgrades.
“I can’t predict what companies will face in years to come, but I do know that we can’t just repeat the development sins of the past and leave customers stuck when the business environment inevitably shifts again. That’s the beauty of SOA-centric development – customers can remain agile and adapt to whatever environmental changes the future holds.”