Business Intelligence is Dead – Long Live the Highly Evolved Business, Part 2 What is a Service-Oriented Architecture?

Originally published March 21, 2007

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the concept of the highly evolved business and said that a service-oriented architecture (SOA) will be key to our ability to achieve that goal.

A highly evolved business is one where the operational, informational and collaborative environments as well as the people, process and information layers are seamlessly interconnected and working together to provide a single, integrated and flexible IT infrastructure to support on demand business. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1

As promised, this article takes a look into an SOA – what it is, what drives it and, most interestingly, why SOA will eventually sound the death knell of business intelligence (BI) as we know it.

What is a Service-Oriented Architecture?
The easiest way to answer this question is to parse the phrase service-oriented architecture into its parts and define each in turn.

First, a service is any well-bounded, defined and repeatable business task that can be invoked in a standard manner. Note the key word “business” here. While, the scope of a task can range from very narrow to quite broad, it must be meaningful to a business person. It may be a simple, one-step service, such as “set customer billing address,” or a more complex task involving several steps and a number of possible outcomes. For example, the service “open a new account” uses other services such as “set customer details,” “perform credit check” and “set account credit limits.”

Second, service orientation is a way of implementing business processes with services that are linked together in workflows. These workflows are designed to provide loose coupling between services so that services can be easily dropped in or out of the flow, or other changes to the flow readily made even by business users. Service orientation allows applications built in this style to be both flexible and integrated.

Finally, a service-oriented architecture is simply an IT architectural style that supports service orientation, based on open standards. It enables the modelling and design, discovery and/or assembly, deployment and management of flexible, integrated applications from reusable business services that are independent of the applications and computing platforms on which they run.

One last term worth defining here is “composite application.” We observe that business users think (probably because they’ve been trained to) of their interaction with the IT environment in terms of “applications.” To an end user, an application is what he or she uses on the computer to gdt a related set of business tasks done. Our current legacy applications are, unfortunately, monolithic and inflexible. New composite applications will also be seen by users as how they get their jobs done; but in contrast to the legacy ones, these applications will be assembled in a more flexible way, responding intelligently to the current role of the user and the context of the task at hand. Furthermore, as far as possible, users will be empowered to change the workflows of these applications when the need arises, enabling innovation and flexibility in doing their jobs.

What Drives SOA?
The modern business world is an environment where adaptability and speed of action have become highly valued characteristics. Market changes are rapid and difficult to predict, and survival of the fittest has become survival of the fastest. Businesses have come to recognise that one the hardest and slowest things to change in their environment is their IT systems. Legacy applications – whether operational or informational – have hard-coded within them the business processes of their day. This has to be undone.

SOA addresses this need by recognising that many business activities are relatively static and that the flexibility required is in how these static components are linked together. This leads directly to well-defined, slowly evolving and reusable services combined with adaptive and easily re-definable workflows as described previously.

In a rapidly changing marketplace, the responses of business users must not only be rapid and appropriate, it is essential that their responses are also innovative. It is only through such innovative reactions to change that a company can hope to outperform its competitors. Enabling personal innovation is the second key driver of SOA which is achieved largely by providing a single, integrated user view of the underlying services and workflows.

SOA, as a result, has a highly integrative effect across the whole enterprise, both at the IT level (where processes will span multiple organisational units) and at the user level (where tasks or services from any or all of the traditionally distinct operational, informational and collaborative environments can appear in a single business context). For the end user, such integration is achieved most visibly on the desktop by ensuring that only the services that are active at a given time are visible to the user in a particular role at that moment, and that these services intercommunicate in an obvious and expected way. A portal-based approach to the user interface best satisfies these needs.

For a more in-depth look at SOA and its effect on how business and IT work, please see "Opening the Door to a Service-Oriented Architecture" in my Business Intelligence Network expert channel

Why Will SOA Sound the Death Knell of Business Intelligence as we Know It?
If we now refer back to the diagram of the intelligent business in Figure 1, we can immediately see that the scope of SOA is so broad that it covers all of the aspects of that concept. Furthermore, SOA strongly encourages all the different parts of the business, and even business partners and customers, to work together in common, flexible processes that span the traditional barriers to cooperation, using shared and reusable services. This changes the playing field for business intelligence in a number of key ways.

First, because the business will begin to think increasingly in terms of services defined in business language, and BI concepts and tools are typically parts of larger and more business-oriented services, it will become increasingly difficult for business intelligence to continue as a standalone part of the business.

Second, the flexibility to change that SOA promises for the operational processes is equally important for the informational world. As a result, business intelligence will be drawn into the SOA infrastructure and tooling in order to benefit from it. This will be particularly true as SOA raises user expectations of flexibility in business processes and improved integration between previously incompatible business tasks.

Third, as users become comfortable with the SOA-driven portal-based interface, they will demand that BI tools play in this user interface as well. This is, of course, an obvious step from a BI point of view too, as real-time business intelligence and closed-feedback loops actually do require a closer integration of the operational and informational environments.

Does this mean that business intelligence disappears entirely? Of course not! The business functions that business intelligence supports will still be there. Decisions will still need to be supported. Historical information will still need to be gathered and analysed. Non-obvious deductions will still need to be derived from trend data. It is thus clear that BI functionality will have to be integrated into the SOA environment, linked into the processes defined there, built on the tools and techniques used by SOA. That is not to say that SOA will not have to be extended in some respects to support BI needs, for there are certainly areas of BI functionality currently poorly or totally unsupported by SOA. However, the era of business intelligence as a very separate and independent area within IT and within the business will come to an end. Requiescat in pace!

In my next article, I’ll take a look at how the emergence of SOA can benefit business intelligence needs in the coming years and, indeed, how the experience of implementing business intelligence over the past 20 or so years can be brought to bear on upcoming SOA projects.

SOURCE: Business Intelligence is Dead – Long Live the Highly Evolved Business, Part 2

  • Barry DevlinBarry Devlin
    Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

    Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

    Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

    Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!



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