Long-Tail SOA and the Mythology of Re-Use
In praise of the niche market, the other 80%
By: Marc Rix
May. 22, 2008 10:30 AM
Creatures of Habit
We see opportunity in catering to the needs of the masses. We see risk in catering to the needs of the few. As SOA practitioners, our goal is to maximize the value of IT by instituting sweeping architectural change. Our job is to unwind decades’ worth of accidental architecture and convert IT from a necessary liability into a strategic asset, and do it all before our competitors do. No pressure. Naturally, when the pressure is on we focus on what we know, what we are most comfortable with. We are most comfortable building for maximum reuse.
The Mythology of Reuse
The most popular method of determining SOA value involves examining reuse. “Do that which maximizes service reuse” seems to be the mantra of the SOA industry today. Indeed, in my own experience, reusability has been the primary, if not exclusive, yardstick with which SOA success is measured. SOA success seems to be synonymous with high service reuse. This philosophy implies that reusable services are more valuable to the business than non-reusable ones, and bases ROI on the number of consumers a service has. More consumers means higher reuse means greater value. In reality, the link between service reuse and business value is a myth.
We tend to believe that services will be reused if designed well, but we have little direct control over how reusable a service is. Sure, we can take care to design our services in ways that let them be leveraged by more than one consumer, but this just ensures that the service is capable of being reused, not that it will be reused. Reuse is really a function of demand. Naturally, the higher the demand the higher a service’s reuse potential. The point is that a service is not reusable because it was designed a certain way. Rather, a service is reusable because it exposes a business function that is already in high demand.
We also have a tendency to believe that reuse leads to business alignment and agility. Service-enabling IT’s most widely used capabilities should bring IT and business closer together and change-proof most of the enterprise, right? Actually, mainstream services benefit IT more than they benefit the business. IT is likely to respond more quickly in times of change, but the benefits of that agility seldom extend out into the lines of business. Suppose, for example, that an IT shop anticipates replacing an antiquated ERP system. It prepares by abstracting its widely used reporting functions through service interfaces and retooling existing business intelligence systems to use those services. Then at some point in the future executive management sends down the order to swap in a new system. If everything goes well, users of the BI tools (and the tools themselves) will have no knowledge of the swap. The transition will be seamless and transparent to consumers of ERP reporting functions. The success would showcase IT’s agility and alignment with corporate directives, but wouldn’t benefit lines of business directly. There’s a difference between providing services that improve business practices and providing services that prevent disruption to business practices. Service-enabling mainstream functions protect lines of business from change (an IT virtue) but don’t make lines of business more competitive (a business virtue).
Mainstream service opportunities are also relatively rare. They are extremely important, to be sure, but they are far outnumbered by niche opportunities. To provide only highly reusable services is to turn a cold shoulder to 80% of the company’s business needs. Who will be there when those needs change? What’s more, niche services benefit business users directly since it’s usually line-of-business personnel who request them. Niche services solve very focused business needs and, by definition, aren’t very reusable; however, niche needs exist en masse and come directly from the trenches – and that’s where business battles are won and lost.
As long as the goal of SOA is to improve business agility, the needs of our companies’ niche markets shouldn’t be ignored. Focusing on popular solutions and maximum service reuse is a natural IT response to the challenge of building enterprise agility. But an SOA built on the premise of maximizing service reuse focuses too much energy on internal, corporate needs. To deliver on the true promise of SOA, our strategies must also push specialized services out to the very edges of our businesses where they can be leveraged when needed. Services do not have to be reusable to be valuable. They just need to be available. This is Long Tail SOA.
Mainstream Versus Long Tail SOA
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