Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Promise And The Potential Of WSO2

(I write this piece with a bit of trepidation as I don't know how it will be taken, but I mean it with the very best of intentions and wishes for my ex-colleagues.)

Looking over the list of my FaceBook friends, I am struck by how many of those I connected with during my brief assignment with WSO2 (Aug-Dec 2011) have moved on to pursue graduate programs of study at US universities. Just like Macquarie Bank in Australia was once called "The Millionaire Factory" for making so many employees rich through bonuses, this little company is rapidly becoming an Intellectuals' Factory. If they succeed in staying in business over the next decade, they will have seeded some very powerful and influential links in academia and the higher levels of the technology world.

Which brings me to my main point - does WSO2 have what it takes to survive the next decade? I believe they do, and not just survive but also move up to the next higher level. But to do that requires a kind of thinking I have not seen from the company's leadership so far.

For at least the last five years, I have been searching for a "next-generation SOA company". I thought I had found it with WSO2, but was quickly disappointed when I realised that this was a company with traditional SOA thinking and only a next-generation business model (free software and paid-for support). That's not quite what I was looking for, and to me, it explains why WSO2 hasn't yet hit the big time in spite of a decent product suite and some very smart, sincere and hard-working people. They're just not revolutionary enough for the market to take notice.

OK, so what do I have in mind?

The view of SOA as being ultimately about SOAP-based Web Services in its implementation (OK, and some REST as well) is so last-decade. That view of SOA, I am convinced, is actually toxic to organisations. The impacts of that kind of SOA to agility and cost are entirely negative. (I have numbers to prove it but I could be sued by more than one ex-employer for breach of confidentiality, so you'll just have to take my word for it.)

If you sell traditional SOA with a different business model, you're not even half revolutionary. You're an interesting sideshow to the main game, and when the traditional SOA model gets discredited, as it largely has already, you get washed away in a way the IBMs and Oracles don't because of their size. (Which is a pity because I simply hate the IBMs and Oracles for what they have done to the industry - milked customers while providing them no benefit.)

My view of SOA is simple - it's "dependency-oriented thinking", and it applies to every layer of the organisation - Business, Applications, Information and Technology. Unfortunately, every SOA guru, after paying ritual obeisance to the notion that "SOA is not technology", proceeds to insult our collective intelligence by discussing Web Services technology (or lately, REST). It seems we just need to look away for a second after someone says SOA is not technology, and we find they're talking technology when we next look!

Similarly, I have a very jaundiced view of the term "SOA governance" as it is popularly applied. I suspect most SOA experts wouldn't be able to define the term in a readily comprehensible manner if they were tied to a chair and threatened with a copy of Lotus Notes. I also suspect most of them use the term "governance" for effect when all they mean is plain old "management".

My definitions of governance versus management are also simple - "doing the right thing" versus "doing things right" - in other words, the "what" versus the "how".

And so, "SOA Governance" is nothing but the process of determining the right dependencies that ought to exist at all layers (Business, Applications, Information and Technology) and identifying the dependencies that do exist. "SOA Management" is about using these as a starting point and eliminating the dependencies that should not exist, formalising the ones that should exist into contracts, and ensuring that fresh dependencies do not creep in. That's all there is to SOA governance and practice, but the benefits are significant and will not escape attention.

I talk about all this at some length in my InfoQ interview. [Update 29/11/2012: I've now also written a white paper on it, which interested folk can download from]

There is so much potential for a truly SOA-enlightened consultant to enter a client organisation and point out all the areas of tight coupling that are driving up their costs and risks and driving down their agility. Heck, if all that the consultant did was concentrate on tight coupling at the data layer, so much wasted potential could be unleashed. That's the power of SOA in the right hands.

What I want to see in a next-generation SOA company is an organisation that is not fixated on technology but on education and consultancy, because it's SOA thinking that is so badly in need of a reboot. WSO2 is full of smart people, but they're focused on the wrong thing. It's not technology they need to be tinkering with. They need to apply their screwdrivers to the minds of IT and business folk at all levels. They need to hire fewer nerds and more business-savvy consultant types trained to think about dependencies. People with backgrounds in risk management, project management and contract law are especially good at thinking about every kind of dependency or "fine print" that could trip up an undertaking, and these are the kinds of people needed for SOA consultancy.

Admittedly, that's a bit hard to do when you do technology too well. Perhaps WSO2 ought to start by setting up a consultancy arm (which isn't focused on selling their own technology support services), getting that division to drive SOA thinking from the business layer down, and then watching it outgrow its older sibling as customers start to see its dramatic impact.

Can they rise to the challenge?

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