Is the word “Application” still relevant?

Gary So of webMethods asked this question in a recent blog entry. He states:

With SOA, the concept of what constitutes an application will have to be rethought. You might have dozens of different services – potentially originating from different vendors, with some on-premise and some served up on demand – that, individually, don’t fulfill a complete business requirement but are collectively arranged to address a business need. Some of these services could also be used in addressing other, unrelated, business requirements. Traditional application logic – logic that would normally reside in the middle tier of a three-tier application architecture — is no longer monolithically implemented in an application server, but distributed among the services themselves and, potentially, process engines that manage the orchestration of these services, governance engines that apply policies related to the use of and interaction between services, and rules engines that externalize logic from everything else. Where in this scenario does one application begin and another end? Is the word “application” even relevant anymore?

I’ve actually thought about this a lot, and agree with Gary. The term application implies boundaries and silo-based thinking. Typical IT projects were categorized as one of two things: application development or Application Integration. In the case of application development, the view is of end-to-end ownership of the entire codebase. In the case of application integration, it was about finding a bunch of glue to stick between two or more rigid processing points that could not be modified. Neither of these models are where we want to be with SOA. Some have to tried to differentiate the future by referring to systems of the past as monolithic applications. Personally, I don’t like that either. Why? Simple. For me, the term application has always implied some form of end-to-end system, most typically with a user interface, with the exception of the batch application. If this is the case, what are we building when a project only produces services? It’s not really an application, because it will just sit there until a consumer comes along. I also don’t think that we should wait to build key services until consumers are ready, however. It’s true that many services will be built this way, but there is no reason that some analysis can’t occur to identify key or “master” services that will be of value to the enterprise.

The terminology I’ve begun using is solution development. An IT project produces a solution, it’s as simple as that. That solution may involve the creation of a user interface, executable business processes, new tasks within a workflow system, services, databases, etc. or any subset of them. It may also make use of existing (whether previously built, purchased and installed, or hosted externally) user interface components, business processes, workflow activities, services, and databases. While vendors may still bundle all of these together and sell them as an “application,” a key evaluation point will be whether those “applications” are build on a solid, composable architecture that allows pieces to be interchanged as needed.

I think that this topic is a good example of the cultural change that is associated with becoming a service-oriented enterprise. If all of your projects can still be defined as application development, you’re not there. In fact, you’re at risk of just creating a bunch of services, as those application boundaries are not conducive to the type of thinking required for success with SOA. If you’re running into projects where the term “application development” just doesn’t seem to make sense, then you’re starting to experience the culture change that comes with the territory. Have fun building your solutions that leverage your SOA!

One Response to “Is the word “Application” still relevant?”

  • I’ve moved away from “application” because (to me) it implies something bounded. In early PSG writings, I started to use the term “business scenario development”. Most often, I talk of “business solutions” and “business solution delivery”.

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