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SOA Web Services — Learning the Language

In some ways, an industry is like a country

In some ways, an industry is like a country. It has its citizens, the corporations, its own particular nuances that serve to make one industry just that much different from another (think insurance and financial services) as to be distinct, and it has a language.

The language of an industry is unique. Words exist in some industries for concepts that have no relevance or relationship to other industries. Just like countries, who have citizens who speak multiple languages, there are groups of companies that offer support, such as IT outsourcing, to companies in any industry. To do so, they have to speak the language of the particular industry they service.

In the IT world, there has long been recognition that in order to support an industry effectively, there needs to be the technology equivalent of a language. In some cases this refers to the processes that are unique to an industry, like verbs in a sentence. In other cases it reflects the unique nature of the commodity or product that is the focus of an industry, such as a financial trade, or a container ship full of cars. Regardless, the understanding that a specialized vocabulary exists on an industry level came very early on in the natural evolution of computer systems.

That didn't mean that it was simple or straightforward to document the language of an industry. Simple things became arguing points, such as whether a customer name was one field or two, or three, or even four. As trivial as it sounds, getting two different companies to agree on data formats is a complicated task, even when the relative number of choices is limited.

Still more daunting is the problem of process. While members of an industry in general make the same product or provide the same service, they rarely agree wholeheartedly on how they do that. Then they have to reconcile what they do with other impacts - like how they do accounting or how they interact with their partners. One company's manufacturing process may be different from any other company's, except for the small part of it where they actually make the commodity or provide the service. Think of an insurance agent. Some work for a company; some are licensed agents. In the end, both write policies, but the process they use may be very different.

The language of an industry is really about communication between members. A company that has no external partners can ignore the language, and companies that dominate an industry can rewrite a language (think WalMart), but, otherwise, companies have to co-exist within an industry. While they may compete, they also do cooperate with one another and to do that effectively and electronically they need to speak a common language, one that understands process, data, and the unique facets of the industry.

Web services and service-oriented architecture have made it easier for companies to interact with one another and exchange data. The underlying tool for that is XML. XML is the underlying structure of the language companies use to communicate electronically with one another. The transformation technologies that support XML make it possible for companies with different data formats and differing process understandings to be able to communicate effectively on a business-to-business level with one another.

The logical conclusion was to try to standardize the language across the industry so that there could be a common ground for understanding and interaction. There have been a number of different approaches, such as RosettaNet and eBXML, that have attempted to codify general principles and practices across industries. Other languages, such as FML and ACORD, have targeted specific industries and attempted with some degree of success to become the de facto language.

This issue focuses on such languages and their use in SOA and Web services implementations. We hope you find it useful in working with the language of your particular industry.

More Stories By Sean Rhody

Sean Rhody is the founding-editor (1999) and editor-in-chief of SOA World Magazine. He is a respected industry expert on SOA and Web Services and a consultant with a leading consulting services company. Most recently, Sean served as the tech chair of SOA World Conference & Expo 2007 East.

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