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Securing the Future of SOA

Like so many evolving concepts that take awhile to reach a tipping point across the retail industry, service-oriented architecture (SOA) is finally garnering more attention from retail chains.

However, getting their arms around the practice is only the first step. Chains also must create a level of documentation—or governance—if they really want an SOA to work for them.

SOA may be confusing to many companies. Simply stated however, SOA is all about integration.

This flexible architecture is based on a collection of services or applications (typically Web-based ones) that communicate with each other. By loosely coupling or self-containing these services, retailers have the opportunity to reuse existing applications alongside new ones.

There are many department-level projects under way, Dean Hidalgo, senior manager, product marketing, for business integration and process management software company TIBCO Software, Palo Alto, Calif., said during the roundtable discussion, “Using Service Oriented Architectures to Streamline the Value Chain.” The event was held during the recent ERI eXchange, sponsored by Retail Systems Alert Group, in Boston.

“Instead of ripping out and replacing older systems, CEOs consider SOA as an agnostic way to build heterogeneity and integrate solutions across the enterprise,” he said.

There are clearly early adopters of the architecture, and these companies have helped SOA projects double between 2005 and 2006. However, a majority of retailers are still evaluating how SOA can benefit their individual businesses. At least this was the case during the roundtable discussion.

Of the four retailers participating in the discussion, only two were actually exploring how to leverage SOA—and they were in very early stages. The other two were interested in learning how the architecture could be best used in different environments, including the warehouse.

“There is no doubt that SOA eliminates 40% of coding, and it enables companies to execute operations, including marketing campaigns and business-partner collaboration, at least 35% faster,” Hidalgo reported.

However, these improvements will not happen overnight. And without the proper trail of governance—or documentation about how each service is created, deployed and used, and who has access to each—retailers have no way of understanding what SOA is really supporting for their companies.

As new services are expanded or new applications added by specific departments, this progression also needs to be documented. Most importantly, departments should monitor reports to ensure that applications are meeting business goals and supporting employees and daily operations.

SOA governance is really no different than the steps chains are taking to document their compliance efforts toward Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and payment-card industry (PCI) standards. However, don’t let the idea of steep fines—or jail time—related to SOX and PCI overshadow the importance of auditing SOA efforts.

True, avoiding governance practices won’t lead to incarceration. However, disparate systems will eventually take their toll on efficient business operations.