August 02, 2007, 11:36 AM — Service-oriented architecture (SOA) can demolish the status quo. Decades of siloed system design have left most government organizations with antique, rickety systems that don't play well with others. By putting new SOA wrappers on old proprietary applications, modular interfaces can be built, shared, linked, reused and recombined as needed, to create an infinitely interoperable IT utopia.
No need to rip and replace old systems; instead, they can be refurbished and extended internally and even externally via the Web. This is where SOA shows promise well beyond rejuvenating legacy enterprise systems, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of advanced networks at Ottawa-based CANARIE Inc.
"SOA is now seen as a key component in a broad range of fields beyond enterprise IT: chemistry, biology, everything," he says. "Whether it's a traditional payroll application or radio telescope research, it makes sharing, mapping and transferring data, and creating new mash-ups, simple."
SOA can also have a profound impact on business processes. Many complex processes that require human back-and-forth can be automated as SOA-based Web services, which in turn can invoke other Web services, and then others, throughout the service chain. "If GM orders a phone line from Bell Canada [for example], it has to be validated, checked, tested, delivered and invoiced by many people," says St. Arnaud. Instead, all the specialized steps in the transactions can be itemized, agreed in a contract, and automated as interlinking Web services between both companies.
Take-up of SOA is stronger in more competitive markets, he says. In the U.S., about 70 percent of companies say they plan to invest in it over the next two years, according to IDC Canada research. In sluggish Canada, the figure is 40 percent, with the public sector lagging still further behind the private sector.
Building this SOA utopia won't be easy. There are many impediments, ranging from making the business case to fix systems that aren't entirely broken to governance and liability issues to standards wars, notes St. Arnaud. Nevertheless, SOA is slowly but surely creeping into many areas of Canadian government.
The way SOA works
In 2005, the Alberta Ministry of Justice deployed a SOA-based enhancement to its maintenance enforcement program (MEP), driven by new legislation enacted the year before. Dubbed "Deadbeat Dad" legislation, the Ministry was concerned with finding ways to track and enforce adherence to court orders by withholding access to government services, explains Stuart Charlton, enterprise architect at BEA Systems Inc. in Toronto. "So if someone doesn't pay child support, they might suspend their driver's licence."
As in other provinces, Alberta's ministries and government departments are far from integrated.