A practical example of SOA value – with Voice

I was intrigued to read an article today discussing how SOA had provided real value in a Voice environment.

Basically, the article describes how, in the manufacturing and logistics area, SOA is helping out the use of voice in the warehouse. The problem appears to be that, given that voice technology is still pretty early in the maturity cycle, most voice-based offerings are proprietary and tightly bound with the applications the voice interface is related to. But unfortunately, as with many industries, there is increasing demand for a flexible, adaptable and agile system to support warehousing, with changing regulations and a constant drive to reduce cost per transaction.

Given the proprietary nature of the technology, changes almost always relate back to requirements placed on the solution vendor, and hence agility and flexibility are outside the user’s control.

Step up SOA. By using emerging standards such as VoiceXML, together with SOA technology, vendors such as Voxware are starting to deliver solutions which are much more easily adaptable. Essentially, use of SOA and standards-based interfaces makes it much easier to interface to Warehouse Management Systems and ERP solutions. Systems become more flexible, enabling users to meet new business demands without having to depend on vendor turnaround.

It’s nice when technology you personally believe in actually does what it say on the box….


One user’s experiences with Linux

I attended a very interesting presentation from the CIO of a large retail firm, the other day, about his experiences with Linux, and particularly Linux running on an IBM mainframe (z/Linux).

This company has been involved with Linux for around 3 years, and I picked up a number of key points.

Basically, the company has been moving some workloads from Intel-based Microsoft servers to the z/Linux environment. One of the first points I picked up was the improved utilization of resources, with corresponding cost savings. Instead of heaving a bank of servers each running at 10% or so utilization, the workloads all ran on the mainframe. This avoids a lot of wasted capacity. What was also extremely interesting was that the company ran the two systems side by side for four months to validate the solution was working correctly, and whereas the server-based system had a number of unplanned outages and failures, the Linux system was 100% reliable.

Another salient point was that in each store, IT support for the store’s needs are provided by a local Linux server. This has the byproduct in the new environment of providing a fail-over environment in z/Linux on the mainframe – because the two operating system environments are the same, it is relatively easy to do this.

An important observation from the CIO was that Linux is definitely not free. However, this company has found a number of major benefits in cost terms:

  • S/W license costs (eg system software) are reduced
  • One resource provides support (vs 1 per 12 servers in old environment)
  • Capital expenditure is reduced (better utilization, as discussed)

In addition to these cost benefits, the CIO is able to respond to new demands more quickly because a new server request is satisfied by a logical reconfiguration on the mainframe rather than having to get approval for and purchase a new server.

The summary was that the big hitters for this particular company were TCO (total cost of ownership) reduction and availability improvements. However, one final point is worth mentioning. The CIO pointed out that the company is not expecting Linux to supplant Windows. It is true that Open Office is being trialled in some places, but his expectation is that there is a place for both environments.


Is consolidation impacting on SOA innovation? Banking consolidation that is!

There has been a steady stream of SOA related start-ups being acquired over the last two years – most recently LogicBlaze by IONA.

Some commentators are beginning to suggest that SOA is fundamentally unsuitable territory for start-ups. I agree to a degree that SOA start-ups have a harder job today than their enterprise infrastructure software ancestors of 10 years ago – but I think it is less about SOA and more about changes in a key industry that used to support such start-ups: financial services.

To start with the argument raised by some against SOA start-ups such as Randy Heffner of Forrester who was recently quoted in SearchWebServices as saying:

a proliferation of small companies doing innovation it works against the goal of having a coherent platform with broad and rich functionality.


Innovation is one major value point that has to be balanced against the need and requirements of building a coherent software infrastructure platform for the next generation of applications,

I am far from convinced of this argument on two counts: if SOA is going to be truly a enterprise wide architecture it must span technology stacks and hence a single coherent software infrastructure platform may be hard to achieve and secondly SOA by its nature should ease the plug-and-play of products from different vendor into it. Of course, as Tony Baer of onStrategies points out in the same article, customers like ‘one throat to choke’ but they also like the solution least likely to result in a throat choking requirement.

Which begs the question why aren’t SOA start-ups succeeding at the rate one might have expected given the popularity of SOA. I suspect one contributory factor may be the continuing consolidation among the global investment banks based in Wall Street and the City of London. This was the traditional birthing ground for so many software infrastructure products and vendors. This consolidation means that there is much less room for SOA start-ups to build before breaking out into other industries. From my own personal experience of being involved with companies selling into the investment banks from the mid-nineties on, I can say that the task has got harder but more importantly the list of possible targets has got much much shorter.

Some examples: eleven years ago JP Morgan Chase Bank One was 6 banks (JP Morgan, Chase Manhatten, Chemical Bank, Banc One of Ohio and First Chicago NBD) of which at least 3 would have been on the target list of any start-up; Deutsche Bank took over Banker’s Trust in the late nineties; Union Bank of Switzerland merged with Swiss Bank Corporation to form UBS in 1998, in 2006 Mellon and Bank of New York agreed to merge and today JP Morgan is rumoured to be considering an offer for Barclays which is in turn attempting to merge with ABN AMRO – taking at least one more target off the list.

Of course, it can be argued that telecoms (another popular starting point for infrastructure software) has recovered in the last couple of years and other verticals could also pick up the slack with government in particular now a bigger buyer of integration products That is certainly true but government is often even harder and slower for a start-up to sell into than banking. Having managed to sell into both when I was running PolarLake, I am a good position to compare the scars!


SOA: Slowly breaking the IT innovation bottleneck?

So often discussions about SOA return to the subject of how to communicate the SOA message to business, convince them to invest and to have faith in the opportunities that SOA can generate.

In these discussions, the CIO is often held up as both the potential champion and the potential bogeyman.  A bogeyman in the sense that they are sometimes considered to be the blockers to innovation.  SOA proponents sometimes mutter what some Web2.0 proponents shout from the rooftops.  As Chris Anderson, inventor of the Web2.0 “Long Tail” concept put it recently:

“CIOs, it turns out, are mostly business people who have been given the thankless job of keeping the lights on, IT wise. And the best way to ensure that they stay on is to change as little as possible.”

Chris is right in pointing out that there is an underlying problem with enterprise IT and innovation.  However, I think it is simplistic to point the finger at CIOs and their perceived defence of the status quo.  Rather I believe Christopher Koch is much closer the mark in his excellent piece titled “Oh right, we forgot that CIOs are unimaginative as well as being fat, lazy and reflexive” (I couldn’t resist repeating the title).

“The predominant view, even in companies that claim IT to be “strategic,” is that the business owns innovation, not IT”

To put it another way: We may be able to reel off the IT successes that transformed the business from Walmart’s supply chain management to Fedex packaging tracking.  However, these are exceptions rather than the rule.  In many if not most cases, business managers simply do not believe that IT can be an engine of significant change and do not expect or even want IT to innovate.  Partly, this is a cultural legacy with organisations not realising the degree to which their business is IT driven.  It is also partly a cultural legacy of IT departments, only too willing to stay in their comfort zone.  As Christopher puts it:

It’s time for CEOs and business management to acknowledge that just as their businesses are now completely reliant upon IT, they are more reliant on the geeks to help them innovate. And the geeks need to worry less about development languages and start worrying more about the business.

Obviously, it is also due to the technology legacy we are all familiar with which makes change hard and running to stand still enough of a challenge for many.  To quote from Christopher again:

“As long as we persist in the naïve assumption that CIOs should be able to use 10-20 percent of their budgets to create a constant stream of breakthrough innovation on top of a creaky infrastructure that consumes nearly all of their management time and staff’s attention, we will not have significant progress.”

Is it all too bleak?  Business regards IT as plumbers and IT is spending all of its time and resource patching leaky pipes.  Of course, this situation is precisely that which leads to the enthusiastic acceptance of the SOA concept by enterprise IT:  IT embracing the need to align with business and SOA providing the groundwork for a more agile environment and hence potentially facilitating a steady stream of small and well-targeted innovation.  To quote Christopher, a final time:

“These small innovations add up, but more importantly, they can change more quickly, giving CIOs something they’ve never known with traditional applications and infrastructures: a measure of agility.”

This is precisely what we begin to see in organisations successfully moving along the SOA adoption path:  CIOs, who have gained sufficient agility, can begin to play a role in driving innovation and a role in business strategy.  However, this may take a long time in many organisations as it requires both delivery on the promise of SOA and a revolution in the perception of IT by business managers.  And we must accept that during the process, there is no point pointing figures at the champion or other people who “don’t get it”.


Software License Optimization – Saving money without really trying

There is a new breed of software emerging that promises real savings to companies of all sizes and shapes.

It is called Software License Optimization, and is an outgrowth of software asset management. I was in a bar today with a mate of mine, and he mentioned a company that produces a software tool that sits and watches what your users are doing on their workstations. No, it isn’t another piece of security software, or something to block people spending their days checking their share portfolios when they should be working. Instead, this software is a usage measurement tool, specifically interested in what applications each user is driving, and more to the point how those applications are being used.

So, for example, the tool tracks how many people in the company use PowerPoint, but more importantly how many just look at presentations with it as opposed to actually creating them. Frequently, less than 10% of users ever build presentations – most just look. The result is that 90%+ of the users will be quite happy with the PowerPoint Viewer capability – which is FREE. Similarly for Acrobat and a range of other desktop tools.

It seems to me it is high time for this market to emerge. Some analysts claim that as much as 60% of all software purchased remains unused, on the shelf or ends up being surplus to requirements. And this type of tool provides an easy, painless route to potentially significant cost savings. One company in the energy industry claims to have saved $250,000 through use of this type of tool. And while some may claim that it is a bit late when the software has already been purchased, this technique can also be used to save on maintenance charges. It is hard for any vendor to argue when the evidence shows the software is not being used, and has been deleted.

I look forward to seeing how this new market develops.


Promoting integration is like making new years resolutions

I was amused by Steve’s blog item on why Integration didn’t seem to be cool (partly because I can’t honestly remember when it was cool).

When vendors discuss new ways of rebadging integration as something else I am reminded of the scene from Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel explains hat his amps are louder because they are labeled from 1 to 11 “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten.” Or to put it into the integration context: “It more agile isn’t it? It’s not slow to change “

To be fair the attraction of going for the new and cool terminology is understandable: Any explanation of an integration strategy can feel a bit like making a list of New Years resolutions. It tends to highlight all the bad habits you have (your mainframe can’t communicate with the Sun servers you bought 10 years ago etc) and may not put you in a good light. Worse still putting it all into a business plan to give to your CEO/CIO is like announcing your list of New Years resolutions to your spouse: He/she has probably heard all these resolutions last year and the year before that and noticed that you are not yet running 20 miles a day or spending quality time with the family goldfish.

So when your friend down the pub (the software vendor) explains that by buying these new running shoes you will be able to run further and keep track of the distance run, it is obviously tempting – analogies to business intelligence are purely intentional. We will have to wait and see if the CEO/CIO is any more convinced that the spouse!


The CIO challenge in 2007: Innovate but spend less money – suggestions welcome!

According to…

…a sneak preview of CIO magazine’s annual state of “State of the CIO” survey the challenge is

“Innovate and grow [the business], but be very buttoned down when it comes to costs, risks, security and regulatory compliance.”

Also quoted in the article is Gartner CEO Gene Hall who says:

“many CEOs believe that their CIO is [too] cost-focused and not capable of contributing to growth—and they need IT to contribute to growth”

It sounds a little like the old “work smarter, not harder” approach is the only way out of the double squeeze to deliver more with less. So how can CIOs regain the innovation habit that might have been stamped out while cost cutting was the only virtue. Well here are three quick ideas on how to simultaneously innovate and spend less money:

Obviously, SOA is a key candidate as Steve points out: SOA is an architecture which supports software as a service/service outsourcing (i.e. reduces costs) and also increases internal agility (i.e. increases agility and hence supports growth).

Something that may sound a little surprising when first raised is investing in hardware upgrades . Not only will this increase the processing power available, more importantly it will reduce the power bill by phasing out old power hungry machines.

I would also look at some of the Web2.0 technologies and in particular wikis. While they may be less sexy than the horribly named “enterprise mash-ups”, the technology is more mature and provides an excellent way of simultaneously reducing the volume of email flowing around with yet another updated project plan attached and increasing collaboration within the organisation and where there is collaboration, there is innovation.

Any other suggestions?  Comments welcome – as always.