Is it about the technology or not?

Courtesy of Nick Gall, this post from Andrew McAfee was brought to my attention. Andrew discusses a phrase which many of us have either heard or used, especially in discussions about SOA: “It’s not about the technology.” He premises that there are two meanings behind this statement:

  1. “The correct-but-bland meaning is ‘It’s not about the technology alone.’ In other words a piece of technology will not spontaneously or independently start delivering value, generating benefits, and doing precisely what its deployers want it to do.”
  2. “The other meaning … is ‘The details of this technology can be ignored for the purposes of this discussion.’ If true, this is great news for every generalist, because it means that they don’t need to take time to familiarize themselves with any aspect of the technology in question. They can just treat it as a black box that will convert specified inputs into specified outputs if installed correctly.”

In his post, Nick Gall states that discussions that are operating around the second meaning are “‘aspirational’ — the entire focus is on architectural goals without the slightest consideration of whether such goals are realistically achievable given current technology trends. However, if you try to shift the conversation from aspirations to how to achieve them, then you will inevitably hear the mantra ‘SOA is not about technology.'”

So is SOA about the technology or not? Nick mentions the Yahoo SOA group, of which I’m a member. The list is known for many debates on WS-* versus REST and even some Jini discussions. I don’t normally jump into some of these technology debates not because the technology doesn’t matter, but because I view these as implementation decisions that must be chosen based upon your desired capabilities and the relative priorities of those capabilities. Anne Thomas Manes makes a similar point in her response to these blogs.

As an example, back in 2006, the debate around SOA technology was centered squarely on the ESB. I gave a presentation on the subject of SOA infrastructure at Burton Group’s Catalyst conference that summer which discussed the overlapping product domains for “in the middle” infrastructure, which included ESBs. I specifically crafted my message to get people to think about the capabilities and operational model first, determining what your priorities are, and then go about picking your technology. If your desired capabilities are focused in the run-time operations (as opposed to a development activity like Orchestration) space, and if you developers are heavily involved with the run-time operations of your systems, technologies that are very developer-focused, such as most ESBs, may be your best option. If your developers are removed from run-time operations, you may want a more operations focused tool, such as a WSM or XML appliance product.

This is just one example, but I think it illustrates the message. Clearly, making statements that flat our ignore the technology is fraught with risk. Likewise, going deep on the technology without a clear understanding of the organization’s needs and culture is equally risky. You need to have balance. If your enterprise architects fall into Nick’s “aspirational” category, they need to get off their high horse and work with the engineers that are involved with the technology to understand what things are possible today, and what things aren’t. They need to be involved with the inevitable trade-offs that arise with technology decisions. If you don’t have enterprise architects, and have engineers with deep technical knowledge trying to push technology solutions into the enterprise, they need to be challenged to justify those solutions, beginning with a discussion on the capabilities provided, not on the technology providing them. Only after agreement on the capabilities can we now (and should) enter a discussion on why a particular technology is the right one.

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