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Service-Oriented Architecture and the Hospitality Industry - Cure or Chimera?

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March 01, 2006
Technology | Architecture
Clay B. Dickinson

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© 2006 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

A bewildering array of arcane terms and confusing acronyms make it nearly impossible to remain abreast of the information technology (IT) industry. Just as things had settled after the dot.com era, along came service-oriented architecture (SOA) – and a whole host of related acronyms like SOAP, WSDL, ESB, UDDI and a variety of WS-extensions. But, IT pundits claim that SOA will have a revolutionary impact on global business practices.

Does SOA have the potential to significantly and positively affect hospitality industry IT, or is it just another over-hyped buzzword destined to fade away like so many others? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Even though SOA is at the pinnacle of the hype cycle and is the subject of much misinterpretation and debate, it will positively and profoundly alter not only the flexibility and functionality of hospitality industry applications, but also the very nature in which those applications are provisioned. Before delving into supporting rationale, first a number of fundamental questions should be clarified. What is SOA? How is it different from what’s available now or what has come before? Is it particularly germane to the hospitality industry and, if so, why? What principal benefits can SOA be expected to deliver? What, if any, are its drawbacks?

There is no universally accepted definition of SOA but, as the term implies, it is not a particular technology, but rather a structural design used to build and implement a technology solution.

According to the author Thomas Erl, “… SOA represents an open, agile, extensible, federated, composable architecture comprised of autonomous, QoS-capable, vendor-diverse, interoperable, discoverable, and potentially reusable services, implemented as Web service … (that) can establish an abstraction of business logic and technology, resulting in a loose coupling between these domains … (and that) is an evolution of past platforms, preserving successful characteristics of traditional architectures …”

Imbedded within this definition are fundamental characteristics that distinguish SOA. For example, that SOA “is an evolution of past platforms that preserves the successful characteristics of traditional architectures” is an important distinction that mitigates risk and provides a degree of comfort to companies not willing to bet the business on some new bleeding-edge technology. Just as earthquake resistant buildings are uniquely designed and engineered constructions of essentially traditional bricks, mortar and steel, so too are SOA-IT environments built using specific architectural principles, standards and technology platforms that have been embraced and well supported by the leading hardware and software vendors1. In this respect, SOA is not a radical departure from what’s come before.

SOA is particularly germane to the hospitality industry because it was conceived to address precisely the types of challenges the industry faces. More than most, the hospitality industry is dependent upon mature and relatively expensive core central reservation, global distribution and property management systems. Similar to trying to widen a major roadway during rush-hour traffic, constant and everyday usage makes modernizing these mission-critical systems expensive and risky. In addition, the industry is legendary with regard to the sheer volume of proprietary interfaces needed to connect small point solutions built on disparate and non-interoperable platforms. Lastly, the hospitality industry is in a constant state of flux. This natural dynamism is being exacerbated by the rapid growth of e-commerce, strategic M&A, distribution channel optimization and a host of other factors – all of which place a growing importance on organizational agility.

SOA addresses the above and other industry challenges by delivering a number of tangible and quantifiable business benefits, including among others:

  • Agility – SOA produces loosely coupled applications based upon a standardized way of orchestrating the interaction among the largely separate presentation, business, application and database layers of an application. This attribute enables the rapid creation of highly functional and flexible applications based upon the dynamic composition of unique Web services that will run in virtually any IT infrastructure.
  • Reusability/Speed to Market – SOA promotes the use of encapsulated Web services that can be reused in a variety of separate applications. The ability to assemble new applications from standardized, reusable components can dramatically decrease development costs and increase the speed to market.
  • Vendor Diversity – The fully encapsulated nature of SOA-designed Web services allows them to run in virtually any environment, giving companies the option of migrating to a cheaper platform and changing their terms of trade by reducing their dependency on any single technology vendor.
  • Business Involvement/IT Alignment – SOA requires the active involvement of business as it is based largely upon combinations of the company’s business processes. This not only enables a much tighter alignment between business and IT but, over time allows business to take greater control over applications’ functionality.
  • Accurate Metrics/ROI – SOA enables new cost recovery and allocation models because its very nature requires the monitored usage of individual Web services. This allows companies to calculate and monitor ROI more precisely, and constantly improve the effectiveness of their business processes.
  • Legacy Modernization – SOA enables interoperability between disparate applications and platform. As such, it allows for the graceful modernization or retirement of often expensive legacy systems through the controlled and cost efficient extraction of selected functionality – one could say, “truly fixing the airplane while in flight.”
  • Integration Expense – Point-to-point integration is notoriously complex, time-consuming and risky – all of which contribute to expense. SOA provides for “build once and run anywhere” interoperable applications that reduce costs by eliminating the need for point-to-point integrations.

Of course, these benefits do not come without a price – primarily from the increased overhead associated with the planning, design and ongoing operation of a potentially more complex IT architecture. In addition, depending on the implementation strategy, this overhead tends to be incurred at the outset of the transformation project, as much care must be taken in the design of the individual Web services, as well as in mapping out the business processes, business rules and the various layers of the SOA. This requires the extensive involvement of the business and a good understanding of SOA principles and technologies. Moreover, successful implementation of SOA will likely be a multiyear effort that will require a secure, robust WAN, committed and predictable funding, and more hands-on IT governance structure. It is critical that organizations build a strategy and business case before embarking on an SOA-enabled transformation journey.

SOA is an approach to designing and deploying Web services which have the potential to profoundly and positively affect the hospitality industry by tackling some of the industry’s biggest and most persistent challenges head on. As SOA is business process-based, it requires alignment between the various business functions and IT, and results in easily adaptable applications that can run on a variety of platforms. In addition, industry-specific standards that are enhancing communications across industry segments and among the property-level applications, such as those being promulgated by organizations like the OpenTravel™ Alliance and Hotel Technology Next Generation, are based on Web services. The industrial-strength SOA infrastructures and services, based on detailed, industry-specific frameworks being built can further reduce costs and increase speed to market by eliminating the need for every company to reinvent the wheel individually.

Clay Dickinson and Kevin Short are client industry executives in EDS’ Global Travel and Hospitality Industry group. They can be reached at clay.dickinson@eds.com and kevin.short@eds.com.

1 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Web Services, July 12, 2005
2 Erl, Thomas; ‘Service-Oriented Architecture: Concepts, Technology and Design’; Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458; 2005; page 54

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