Khalid Mansour

Service Orientated Architecture

I have just come back from two very excellent days with a company called Ciber. Ciber are one of the UKs premier partners for SAP, in fact we are using Ciber for a deployment right now. The focus of the past two days has been to investigate SOA (Service Orientated Architecture) and how it’s important for business, specifically in the SME marketplace. The main thrust of the two days of discussions has been lead by the rather excellent Dr Khalid Mansour and trust me here, this guy is one bright cookie.A lot has been said about web 2.0, applications that ‘serve’ the user and empower them, examples such as Flickr and eBay are all too familiar. However the best way I can describe SOA is almost ‘Business 2.0’ (you heard that here first), mixing applications with business logic that serves the end user (client or employee). I think the key to a true SOA is we all need to realise that the IT world is a pretty confusing place for most people, especially in business, what should be simple can get blown out of all proportions because of complexity in system deployment and infrastructure, why use one system to hold that data when you can you five right?! A good SOA deployment of anything isn’t an all encompassing solution of all our IT needs, on the contrary its probably several, but the key is making these systems talk to each other, integration and data governance.SAP have a really neat solution for some of these issues. Sometimes with SAP I just dont get some of the over complexity (totally down to a lack of understanding) however SAP have obviously been listening to their customers as the latest version of mySAP comes bundled with SAP Netweaver. Now if you have anything to do with writing software for the web, or you develop in house applications, you need to pay attention here. Netweaver is absolutely gobsmacking, built on a Adobe Flex engine using Java and the upcoming Action Script 3 language, Netbuilder empowers the developer in a way I have never seen an application work before, its truly phenomenal, and this is in an age of agile languages such as Ruby and its best friend Rails.For those that don’t know what Adobe flex is, its in effect a flash content generator mixed with a good helping of AJAX magic dust, it has several rather groovy additions to the flex family including flex charting and its all built to work with actionscript 3. Now what SAP have done is take this powerful application platform and give it a development environment that even my grandmother could master, using a Visio style relationship set up you can literally drop and drag your ‘modules’ (modules is a big aspect of SOA) and build a very comprehensive application that can be deployed via your SAP interface, or as its built using the Flex architecture you can deploy it stand alone. The really cool part of the netweaver setup however is how the system can literally ‘wrap’ data connections. Let me explain that a little more, say you have some content in an old database somewhere, it could be whatever Access or an SQL db for example, now you don’t want to redevelop that, why would you, it works. However, imagine now you have just rolled out a nice CRM solution and your staff now need to use both of these systems, your legacy and your shiny new one to do their job correctly, under a non SOA application you have a major headache on your hands. Now with Netweaver you can literally wrap these data sources and use both of them in a singular application, throw the shiny flex platform with its web 2.0 GUI at it you have something that is seriously powerful, and get this, anyone can do it.The whole idea of the netweaver concept is it enpowers the people that know about the data, not the application developer, who can have a rather removed idea of what is going on. However don’t fear developers, you’re not redundant just yet, because the code generated by netweaver is a mixture of AS3, Java and plain old XML it can be scaled and developed outside of the netweaver environment.Just to sum up, during our visit to SAP with Ciber we had a demonstration of exactly how powerful netweaver can be. The chap demonstrating took a blank application and connected via the GUI to a table held within a SAP database, he dropped and dragged his site map around and literally point and clicked where he wanted the data to display. He then took a completely separate database (it happened to be the famous Northwind access demo) and integrated this into his ‘site map’, no code was written, it was droped and dragged, that’s the key. Flicking into design mode he then used the flex charting package to display some nice visuals, and that was it, 5 minutes was all it took to have something so cutting edge, quick and scalable.Now I know SAP is a very expensive tool, and it’s not the answer to all the worlds business problems, but combine SAP with Netweaver, there is something so visionary I do worry for the competition. There must be some serious head scratching going on at Microsoft and Oracle.Just going back to the very excellent Dr Khalid Mansour, his exact words were if you had to learn anything learn Netweaver and the business logic that drives it, it’s going to be big business.