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Flexible software architectures on rise

A long-established concept called a "service-oriented architecture" will give businesses better return on their IT dollars and keep the software industry vibrant, analysts say.

If the experts have it right, a long-established software concept called a "service-oriented architecture" will give businesses better return on their information technology dollars and keep the software industry vibrant.

Research firm ZapThink released

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on Thursday its prediction that such architectures will become the dominant designs for networked business systems by 2006. And analysts at Gartner are predicting that service-oriented architectures will enter mainstream usage this year.

The term service-oriented architecture describes a method for building a corporate software infrastructure that allows different applications to exchange data and processes regardless of the operating systems or programming languages underlying those applications. In this model, an application or a portion of an application is a service that another application or person can subscribe to without extensive custom coding.

Although hardly a common phrase, the term service-oriented architecture has been growing in usage with the adoption of Web services, which use software standards based on the XML programming language to enable disparate systems to share information.

Web services are important to the adoption of service-oriented architectures because the XML standards let companies easily connect existing data or processes to different applications or people, according to analysts. For example, by putting a Web services interface on an inventory tracking application, a company can give both PC and PalmPilot users access to the information, and also feed the data to a different supply chain application.

If the promise of the service-oriented architecture takes root, businesses will gain more flexibility when they need to change computing systems, analysts said.

"SOA clarifies design, makes it easier for large or geographically distributed development teams to work together, and enables software reuse because modules can be reconfigured and tailored in new ways to meet new purposes," Gartner analyst Roy Schulte noted in a December research report.

Such business agility should also pay off for software providers, according to ZapThink. Although the actual dollar size of the market is anyone's guess, the research company predicts that demand for service-oriented architectures--a market based on enterprise software, including applications, development tools and infrastructure software--will reach $98 billion by 2010, showing a compound annual growth rate of 7 percent for the rest of this decade.

Although that growth rate is lower than the 14 percent compound annual growth that characterized enterprise software before the downturn, it beats the more-or-less flat market of the last few years.

"Service orientation is essentially thrifty--it's about squeezing more value out of existing systems rather than requiring a major build-out," according to ZapThink analyst Jason Bloomberg.