Networks and computers at the service of consumers and business is a cherished and long-held promise that has so far failed to deliver. No longer. An emerging software model supported by the European Commission and the software industry may mean that networks and computers become, finally, at your service.
Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is a model for a new approach to information technology. “SOA is really a philosophy, a way of approaching software development around the concept of providing services,” said Mike Papazoglou, author of a Web services textbook, due out in December, and acting chair of the International Conference for Service Oriented Computing (ICSOC).
The model is a paradigm shift in software development. Instead of designing individual programs that perform hundreds of functions, it seeks to design individual functions that can be mixed and matched to create hundreds of different services or applications.
It will have a huge impact. “Services will play a role in e-business, e-government, e-learning and I think it will have a huge impact on e-health, too,” said Papazoglou. It will not only transform software development, it will ultimately enable the creation of thousands of as-yet-unimagined services.
The model requires lightweight services that are re-useable, can interoperate with each other on any platform, whether it's a network, a workstation or a mobile phone. So, a service could be designed to check inventory, while another orders new stock and a third processes orders. All of these are small, simple pieces of software doing one function well.
But they can also be easily combined. So the sales force could enter orders into mobile phones. The mobile service alerts the inventory service, which discovers the product is not in stock and alerts the order service. The order service asks for new stock from a preferred supplier, but is told there is none, so the supplier service orders new stock from the manufacturer.
Mix and match elements to create totally new services
The potential is limited only by imagination. Already there are many impressive examples of small pieces of software combining to provide powerful, value-added services. One example combines a map service with a classified advertising service to automatically provide maps for available home rentals or purchases. Another alerts booksellers about the lowest retail price for specific books. Still others personalize advertising to a particular geographical location.
Ultimately, designers will mix and match different elements to create totally new services. “Software engineering will become service engineering,” said Papazoglou.
There are four fundamental elements that are key to developing the SOA concept: describe, publish, invoke and combine. “People need to be able to identify services through their description, and services must be published so they can be found. Then they need to be invoked to execute their function. Finally, they must be able to be combined with other services to provide the overall function,” said Papazoglou.
Currently, work is underway to develop services around the SOA concept in many top European and US software companies. Some of the biggest are completely re-engineering their product line along SOA principles.
A technology platform for software and services
The entire field of software services also received an enormous boost with the establishment of the Networked European Software and Services Initiative (NESSI). “We are a European Technology Platform, and we're seeking to establish an architecture for service-oriented business models,” said Veronique Pevtschin, communications coordinator with NESSI. “SOA is central to what we are doing, but our work goes beyond that.”
Competing companies participate in NESSI as it is in their interest to work together on these problems and the development of services generally. However, many issues must be resolved before people will use software services.
NESSI addresses challenges such as how to develop services in the first place, and making services relevant and effective, but leaving the user in control, or again, how to represent electronically all the different elements of a real world service. Another challenge is to getting services to interoperate and work on different types of networks, like grids and peer-to-peer networks. This needs standardization work.
“There are problems with standards. For example, event handling, which is crucial to services, has two active standards supported by different industry consortia,” said ICSOC's Papazoglou. “But the two are talking to each other, so there are signs of consolidation.”
Developing a research agenda
NESSI is developing the Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) in three volumes for software and services in Europe, and already it has published volume 1. The SRAs establish the research priorities that will make advanced software services a reality and, in the process, enable a wide variety of new, value-added business services.
“Our work wants to define an architecture and agree on standards, but we will also develop implementations of the architecture as an example and inspiration to other companies,” said Pevtschin, adding that the work will continue for possibly a decade, a reflection of the range and complexity of issues facing the development of software services.
But Pevtschin believes that the first of a new generation of services will begin to appear in the next two to three years. To this end, NESSI want to develop services that can tailor available (static) information to the needs caused by specific events.
Responding to a health scare is one hot example of this. Suppose we want to recall contaminated food or a faulty product, for example. “Right now we can track a product to the supermarket, but we don't know who bought it,” said Pevtschin. Services offered by radio frequency identity tags could give us that information. However, obviously, a lot of attention needs to be paid to how this can be done in a way which secures the privacy of individuals.
Given that most industry and government bodies around the world are focused on these problems, they should resolve over time. Then Europeans can look with hope and gratitude to a time when, finally, technology will be at your service.
This story was originally published on the IST Results Web site, which provides news from the EU Information Society Technologies program. The Web site available at http://istresults.cordis.lu/.
To view IST Web on CORDIS, which provides all information on the EU-funded Grid research projects and the new EU funding for Grid research, please visit www.cordis.lu/ist/rn/ri-cnd/links.htm.