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Last year, industry analysts pointed to 2005 as a potential watershed for services-oriented architecture and its purveyors.

Early anecdotal evidence indicates that this prediction may bear out. Consultants and integrators are building SOAs that are more than pilot installations. BearingPoint Inc. recently announced a project at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. that employs an SOA. BearingPoint will use the approach to integrate a new agent-compensation management system with numerous legacy applications.

SOAs represent a software development approach based on reusable services that can be combined to perform various business functions. Web services protocols provide the foundation for most of the SOAs now surfacing. Web services standards such as XML and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) let organizations integrate applications, without the need for proprietary application programming interfaces.

Another encouraging sign comes from large integrators, which are expanding their SOA and Web services practices. Earlier this month, for example, IBM Global Services unveiled new services to help customers plan, design, implement and manage SOAs.

In addition, the giants of enterprise software have put their stamp on SOA. Two weeks ago, SAP launched a process to assist customers in the SOA transition.

“We are starting to see the Web-service enablement of major systems,” said Ed Horst, vice president of marketing at AmberPoint, a maker of SOA management software.

Horst also cited the commitment of large integrators to SOA as another indication that SOAs have arrived. “We’re now getting to the point where you get critical mass,” he said. Horst said AmberPoint generated more revenue in its most recent quarter than in the whole of its previous fiscal year.

AmberPoint works with top-tier integrators like IBM Global Services and much smaller firms such as Merlin Technical Solutions. Smaller companies, Horst said, have been among the first movers in SOA development and integration, building upon experience with distributed application approaches such as the Common Object Request Broker Architecture and the Distributed Computing Environment.

Because services-based applications communicate standard protocols, integrators don’t need to learn the intricacies of a software package’s APIs, Horst said. But to take advantage of the current demand for SOA, they do need to know a few other things. Horst said service providers need to deal with architectural issues such as granularity. That is, should a given business function such as credit-card transactions be rolled up into an application function as one large service, or in a more finely grained way, as a set of separate operations?

Horst said would-be SOA integrators would also do well to stay on top of standards and pay attention to problems the run times of specific applications may have in performance management and security. They must also straddle skill sets, he noted, as SOAs may involve .Net, Java or other platforms.

Rob Kidd, a research director with The Sageza Group Inc., added another factor for integrators to consider: human relations.

He said corporate IT departments have traditionally served a maintenance function, keeping watch over legacy systems and their associated interconnection issues. Introduce an SOA, however, and the role of the IT shop changes.

“In the ideal case, SOA enables the business people to customize applications very quickly, on the fly, to meet business needs,” Kidd explained. So what was once an IT function shifts to business users.

This role change may be hard for organizations to handle, Kidd contended. Integrators must be ready to grapple with the human component along with the business and technical aspects of SOA, he added.

So, 2005 may yet emerge as the year of the SOA consultant. But the well-rounded service provider may make the greatest inroads.