Service-oriented architecture, the business software industry's oft-used buzzwords, could actually be paying off, at least for some companies.
IBM on Tuesday reported second-quarter earnings that slightly beat analysts' expectations, in large part due to a strong showing from its software group. Company Chief Financial Officer Mark Loughridge singled out the growth of its WebSphere middleware brand and the customers' increased spending on service-oriented architecture (SOA), a system design meant to encourage software reuse and lower costs.
Although the concept has been around for some time, some analysts expect that in the coming years investments in SOA projects will be the primary fuel for business software vendors' revenues, notably providers of middleware, or software that connects separate applications.
Signs of SOA spending are showing up on the ledgers of IBM's software competitors as well.
Middleware company Tibco Software has exceeded analysts' expectations for four straight quarters. BEA Systems, which saw revenue decline in 2005, has seen its fortunes perk up in the past six months.
Although most financial analysts focus on Oracle's larger database and applications businesses, the company this week said that its fast-growing middleware portfolio has passed $1 billion in fiscal year 2006. Meanwhile, Microsoft's server and tools business continues to grow rapidly and now approaches the size of its Windows and Office business units.
The SOA approach is touching nearly all corners of business software. But providers of infrastructure software, as opposed to companies like SAP that sell packaged applications, initially stand to benefit the most, said AMR Research analyst Dennis Gaughan.
That's because corporate customers are deciding to build their own applications using SOA concepts--often starting with small internal pilot projects--rather than buy off-the-shelf packaged applications.
"In the short term, that's definitely benefiting the IBMs and BEAs of the world," Gaughan said.
That doesn't mean applications providers are cast aside from SOA spending, though. A "front and center" decision for companies embarking on SOA projects is whether they should go with their packaged application or middleware provider, Gaughan said.
Austin Energy, an electric utility based in Austin, Texas, chose the middleware route, using IBM software. "I'm so enamored of SOA and what it can do for an enterprise, so I think of what a world would look like that is SOA-pervasive. It would be fantastic," said Andreas Carvallo, chief information officer of Austin Energy. "If you could take the top 10 companies in the world, and you could drive an SOA transformation through them and they force that through their own supply chains--a GE, a Wal-Mart, etc.--the benefits would be tremendous, tremendous."
A service-oriented architecture is not a product, but rather a way of designing systems with the goal of being more flexible and cost-effective. Typically, an SOA project will involve sales of infrastructure software components such as integration software, application servers and development tools.
In IBM's case, its WebSphere line, which includes integration software and application servers, grew 17 percent in the second quarter of this year. The company is investing $1 billion a year in SOA-related efforts, such as partner incentive plans.
Some analysts expect spending on SOA to continue growing, as more mature products and increased standardization make the approach worth exploring.
Web services protocols have become widespread, making it much easier to share information between disparate data sources. In addition, IT architects and developers are designing systems to be more modular, rather than monolithic chunks of code.
For example, a service that taps a customer database and presents that information to a Web portal could be used in many applications, rather than be rewritten many times.
The primary benefit is more flexibility and the ability to change systems quickly, some customers said.
"We want business processes to be changed quickly and adapt to how marketing wants to bring services and features to our customers," said Jim Haney, Harley-Davidson's chief information officer, who is heading an SOA project. "It used to be that to make one change you had to change everything, because all the systems were tightly coupled."
Typically, customers can modify existing systems to communicate via standards-based products, rather than have to start from scratch with SOA projects. That incremental approach is pushing customers toward building their own systems, instead of purchasing packaged applications, according to analysts.
"The acceptance of service-oriented architectures by large and innovative end users is one of the means by which the movement toward 'building' has been facilitated," Erik Keller, president of software consulting company Wapiti, wrote in a recent essay.
In his piece, Keller presented research indicating that in the last five years the pendulum has swung from customers primarily buying packaged applications to building their own, spurred by SOAs, open source and offshore programming.
"Enterprise application vendors have to acknowledge and plan for this fast-moving and invisible competitor or face the death of packaged apps in the future," he concluded.
Although a build-it-yourself approach generally favors middleware vendors, packaged applications companies are pursuing an SOA strategy as well.
SAP's NetWeaver software and its Enterprise Services Architecture are designed to make its business process applications easier to configure and combine.
Rival Oracle is investing in its Fusion Middleware to create a common SOA underpinning for its business applications. In addition, Microsoft is seeking to unify its several application products using service-oriented concepts, according to AMR Research's Gaughan.
"I wouldn't say that there are a lot of examples of demonstrated success or return on investments (from SOAs). But a lot of people recognize this is where the software market is going."
--Dennis Gaughan, analyst, AMR Research
Oracle and Microsoft can each benefit from the SOA trend by selling both applications and their own middleware and tools as well, Gaughan said.
For smaller companies, the adoption of Web services and SOAs has created opportunities to fill cracks left unfilled by larger vendors. For instance, there are several smaller companies that build tools to manage Web services networks or create a registry of shared services.
For all the activity, though, service-oriented architecture isn't the answer in many cases.
One enterprise architect at an East Coast insurance firm recounted an incident where a businessperson suggested using an SOA, even though the benefit was not clear.
"There is a lot of ignorance about what an SOA is and is not, and you get people who hear the buzzword and think it's a panacea," said the architect, who wished to remain unnamed because of company policy. "A lot of times, you can cause as much damage as help."
Still, some analysts say that software projects--and spending--will increasingly focus on service-oriented architectures. Market research firm IDC, for one, said SOA-related services will reach $8.6 billion this year, more than double last year's spending, and grow to $34 billion by 2010.
"I wouldn't say that there are a lot of examples of demonstrated success or return on investments" from SOAs, Gaughan said. "But a lot of people recognize this is where the software market is going."
CNET News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.