SOA / ESB confusion

confusionI recently commented on a query in another blog about ESBs, and what they are in relation to SOA.

Since this is a subject that I continue to get asked every now and then, even though I have blogged on it a number of times before, I thought I would reproduce the response I gave.

It starts right at the ESB beginning, and concludes with a few old Lustratus paper references that I believe are still relevant in introducing the ESB and SOA concepts.

When the Enterprise Service Bus concept started off life in the mid 90s it was as an extension of a messaging pipe – that is, message based communications. Prior to the ESB, messages were sent with tools such as IBM’s MQSeries (now WebSphereMQ), Progress Software’s Sonic MQ and a range of others, particularly JMS (Java Messaging Service) implementations. Users quickly realized that more was needed than just the ability to send a message from A to B – value add capabilities were needed such as data transformation, message enrichment and dynamic routing of messages based on content or other circumstances. This resulted in the emergence of ‘message brokers’ – pieces of code that acted as a ‘hub’, where any required actions could be taken on in-flight messages. This is where the ‘hub and spoke’ concept that was the basis of the EAI market came from. Messages from A to B would go via the hub so that the required intelligence could be applied, with the A and B endpoints requiring little intelligence at all.

However, two things happened that caused the ESB concepts to emerge around 1996-97. Standards activity in the integration marketplace increased and took root, and users wanted to find ways to lower the entry price for integration – having to buy a hub was very expensive, particularly when connections were few in the early stages of integration development. There were also fairly groundless concerns about availability with the hub and spoke model due to the perceived single point of failure. As a result, the ESB emerged.

The ESB did two important things – it leveraged major standards, in particular the web services standards offering a standard way to invoke the messaging capabilities of the bus, and it adopted a ‘bus’ rather than ‘hub and spoke’ architecture which resulted in a much lower deployment cost, at least in the early stages of integration development. The bus concept involves placing more intelligence at each node, so that messages can flow A to B without going through the hub. In flight message processing happens at the individual nodes rather than at the hub.

So, an ESB is actually just a ‘smart’ communications pipe, providing not just a way to transfer the messages from A to B but also the in-flight capabilities (often called mediation services) required. In addition, this is all available under a layering of standards. This is why typically ESBs are used with web services invocations, and often utilize JMS servers for the actual transfer mechanism.

SOA is something much bigger. It is a way of architecting your IT programs around a service-oriented concept. The absolute key to this is that an SOA service relates to a BUSINESS piece of functionality as opposed to some programming activity. So, you do not have an SOA service to read a record from a file, but rather an SOA service to ‘Get Customer Details’ which internally will end up reading customer information from files and so on. The secondary characteristic is that this service must be able to be invoked from anywhere, with no requirement to know where the target service will actually run. Therefore, it is clear to see that SOA requires some sort of communications capability, and while this does not have to be an ESB, the ESB fits the role very well particularly with its affinity to standards such as web services.

There are a number of free white papers at that discuss this topic in more detail, particularly ‘SOAs and ESBs’, ‘What is an SOA Service’ and ‘The Year of ESB-ability’.


Posted in enterprise service bus, esb, Imported, SOA.