Software strategy blurs the line between SOA and applications

Gauging the impact of IBM's strategies across its businesses over the past year first requires a look at the software end, where dozens of acquisitions were made to fill out its brands—the latest being the Watchfire deal that, when closed, will add testing for Web application security flaws into the Rational brand.


Gauging the impact of IBM's strategies across its businesses over the past year first requires a look at the software end, where dozens of acquisitions were made to fill out its brands—the latest being the Watchfire deal that, when closed, will add testing for Web application security flaws into the Rational brand.

But for a manufacturer, a major trend that's hard to ignore is IBM's stance on the applications business. After it divested the MAPICS ERP package nearly a decade ago, IBM announced it would exit the applications business and instead emphasize its role as the company that integrates it all.

Yet in recent years, IBM has edged closer into that business with acquisitions or development of enterprise asset management, product information management, and master data management solutions. And the questions flared anew after this year's IBM Impact SOA conference, as it rolled out a vision of business-driven service-oriented architecture (SOA).

The rationale should sound familiar to any ERP veteran: Most enterprise IT organizations would rather not spin their wheels developing applications from scratch if they could be acquired off-the-shelf. Yet with ERP largely a mature market, those same organizations would like to benefit from new functionality outside of the straightjackets imposed by individual vendors.

“[SOA] frees up business processes bound by applications,” says Steve Mills, head of IBM Software Group.

IBM views business process management (BPM) as the glue that makes it all happen, with SOA being the piece that makes BPM dynamic. And it views verticalizing as the way to get SOA off the ground and make it a business, rather than an IT project.

IBM's vertical offerings populate several levels, including blueprints that describe a business scenario, such as order-to-cash in manufacturing. As an introductory document, the blueprints describe the business scenario as it exists in most companies today, how it could be improved using SOA, and where the entry point for SOA might be.

The next level is SOA Industry Frameworks, which include technology from IBM and its business partners. They are designed to provide actual services for specific processes in specific industries, which could be the SOA equivalent of starter applications. The actual frameworks are products as part of WebSphere Business Fabric, the piece that came to IBM through the Webify acquisition.

Last year, IBM announced a framework for product life-cycle management. Most recently, it announced new frameworks covering processes in banking, health care, telecom, retail, and insurance industries.

Naturally, the spate of announcements revived questions as to whether IBM does in fact have a stealth strategy to reenter the applications business. It reflects a new tug of war that is emerging as you begin to expose functionality from existing applications silos and compose them into dynamically orchestrated services or composite applications. If you are using IBM WebSphere Process Modeler to design an order-to-cash process built on services exposed from sources such as SAP, Siebel, and i2, which vendor is responsible for the application?

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