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TECH TALK: Tech Trends: Service-oriented Architectures

July 6th, 2004 · No Comments

XML.com provides an overview:

SOA is an architectural style whose goal is to achieve loose coupling among interacting software agents. A service is a unit of work done by a service provider to achieve desired end results for a service consumer. Both provider and consumer are roles played by software agents on behalf of their owners.

This sounds a bit too abstract, but SOA is actually everywhere. Let’s look at an example of SOA which is likely to be found in your living room. Take a CD for instance. If you want to play it, you put your CD into a CD player and the player plays it for you. The CD player offers a CD playing service. Which is nice because you can replace one CD player with another. You can play the same CD on a portable player or on your expensive stereo. They both offer the same CD playing service, but the quality of service is different.

The idea of SOA departs significantly from that of object oriented programming, which strongly suggests that you should bind data and its processing together. So, in object oriented programming style, every CD would come with its own player and they are not supposed to be separated. This sounds odd, but it’s the way we have built many software systems.

The results of a service are usually the change of state for the consumer but can also be a change of state for the provider or for both. After listening to the music played by your CD player, your mood has changed, say, from “depressed” to “happy”. If you want an example that involves the change of states for both, dining out in a restaurant is a good one.

The reason that we want someone else to do the work for us is that they are experts. Consuming a service is usually cheaper and more effective than doing the work ourselves. Most of us are smart enough to realize that we are not smart enough to be expert in everything. The same rule applies to building software systems. We call it “separation of concerns”, and it is regarded as a principle of software engineering.

How does SOA achieve loose coupling among interacting software agents? It does so by employing two architectural constraints:
1. A small set of simple and ubiquitous interfaces to all participating software agents. Only generic semantics are encoded at the interfaces. The interfaces should be universally available for all providers and consumers.
2. Descriptive messages constrained by an extensible schema delivered through the interfaces. No, or only minimal, system behavior is prescribed by messages. A schema limits the vocabulary and structure of messages. An extensible schema allows new versions of services to be introduced without breaking existing services.

As illustrated in the power adapter example, interfacing is fundamentally important. If interfaces do not work, systems do not work. Interfacing is also expensive and error-prone for distributed applications. An interface needs to prescribe system behavior, and this is very difficult to implement correctly across different platforms and languages. Remote interfaces are also the slowest part of most distributed applications. Instead of building new interfaces for each application, it makes sense to reuse a few generic ones for all applications.

John Hagel has proposed the concept of service grids.

Tomorrow: ASPs


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