Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Liz McMillan, Angsuman Dutta, Yeshim Deniz, Harry Trott, Mehdi Daoudi

Related Topics: Agile Computing, Microservices Expo

Agile Computing: Article

Service Semiotics and the SOA Illusion

How Service abstractions are the most powerful illusion in SOA

Quick! What does a Service look like? Is it an icon on the screen or some collection of XML? Or maybe the concept of Service is too abstract to have a visual representation at all? This question may sound superficial, but in fact, goes to the heart of how Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) interrelates with related concepts like Web-Oriented Architecture (WOA), Business Process Management (BPM) Enterprise 2.0, as well as the fundamental question of how SOA provides value to the business.

In fact, visual representations of Services, as well as the composition and consumption of those Services, are becoming the key to many SOA success stories. Without a visual component you can show business users, SOA becomes abstruse; furthermore, as organizations leverage Web 2.0 principles to build mashups, the visualization aspect of the Web 2.0 value proposition becomes a driving force for SOA. Understanding how Services look, therefore, is a critical part of understanding how they provide value.

The Semiotics of Business Services
Providing a visual representation to an abstraction like a Service only serves a purpose if it has meaning and is useful in context. How to represent a concept like a Service with a symbol that provides meaning and is useful to its users falls under the topic of semiotics, which is the study of how symbols come to have meaning (semantics), how those symbols relate to one another (syntax), and how people do useful things with their symbols (pragmatics). How we should visualize Services to make them useful, therefore, is a semiotic challenge, and furthermore, solving this challenge goes to the heart of SOA.

At the heart of SOA, of course, is the notion of the Business Service, which is an abstraction that provides a representation of a business capability or data that the organization can compose with other such Services to implement business processes. As ZapThink has explained before, such Business Services are a level of abstraction above Service interfaces like Web Services and REST-based Services. And yet, even though the notion of a Business Service is critical to understanding SOA, and even though ZapThink spends substantial time and effort both in ZapFlashes as well as in our Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) courses explaining this notion, true understanding of the Business Service abstraction remains elusive for most people.

This is where semiotics comes into the story. The problem with abstractions is, well, they're abstract -- but visualizations are concrete. Instead of focusing on the abstract, then, let's focus on the visualization of the Service, and how it serves its role within the organization. So, then, what does an abstraction look like? And how do we put abstractions to use?

Abstractions: A Primer
Chances are, you're looking at this ZapFlash in a window on a computer screen. We all know how to use such windows -- how to open them, close them, resize them, move them around, and access the icons that appear within them. We're also quite comfortable calling them "windows." But are they really windows? Can you buy them at a home goods store? Do you install them in your house? Do they let fresh air in when you open them? Of course not. The window you see on your computer screen is an abstraction. It simplifies things for the user by hiding underlying complexity.

There's no way this window will let fresh air in because in a fundamental sense it's not real: it's actually an illusion. The window on your screen is really just a pattern of pixels, supported by underlying computer code that changes those pixels according to a complex set of rules. All the "windowness" of that window is convenient slight of hand that fools us users into thinking there's something there we can open, close, and move around.

I remember the first time I saw a Graphical User Interface (GUI) with a window, in 1984 on one of the early Macintoshes. My computer interface experience before then was via a command line, where you could easily navigate file system directory structures with simple typed commands. Seeing that first Mac window, and the icons in it representing files, made immediate sense: That's what a directory looks like! That's what files look like! But the fact remained that the GUI was really just more computer code, and that windows and icons were abstractions that provided the simplicity that became the raison d'être of the Macintosh, and all GUIs that came after.

The Meaning of the Abstraction
Now, drawing rectangles on the screen was relatively straightforward, even in the early 1980s. But there's a big difference between a rectangle and a window, namely the semiotics of the window: how windows refer to the directories they abstract, how windows relate to one another and other GUI elements, and how people can use windows to accomplish useful tasks. In other words, the difference between a simple rectangle and a window is that a window actually works. And therein lies the true power of a successful abstraction.

Let's extend this line of thought to Business Services. We could easily draw an icon on the screen and designate it as a Service, but that's not good enough. We need an icon that actually works. What does it mean, therefore, for a visualization of a Service to work within the context of the user interface? Here's where semiotics helps again. For the visualization to be effective, it must solve three problems:

  • Semantics: the Service visualization must represent the underlying Service itself. If it's a data Service, the visualization must provide the relevant data; if it's an application or transactional Service, then the visual environment for the Service must support the relevant capabilities.
  • Syntax: the user shouldn't have to worry about data formats, Service contract templates, XML schemas, and the like. The visual environment should coordinate all these nuts-and-bolts details behind the scenes on behalf of the user.
  • Pragmatics: Whatever users want to do with the Service should work when they try to accomplish those tasks with the icon representing the Service. Composing the Service with other Services in the visual environment should effect true Service composition. Mashing up data from different Services should provide an accurate visualization of the combined data.

In fact, working visualizations of Services, as well as the consumption and composition of those Services, are fundamental requirements for successful SOA -- and furthermore, any SOA project is incomplete (or potentially, entirely unsuccessful) without such working visualizations.

Bringing the Conversations Together
If it sounds like I'm describing an enterprise mashup tool or a business process modeling tool, that's no accident. For years, ZapThink has been espousing that mashups cannot be enterprise mashups -- that is, cannot be useful to the business -- without the loose coupling, management, and governance that SOA provides. With this ZapFlash, we're arguing for the converse as well: SOA cannot be truly useful to the business without working visualizations of abstracted Business Services.

In a simplistic sense, you could say that SOA without WOA is too abstract and complex to be useful, while WOA without SOA lacks the flexibility and robustness to meet enterprise needs. But the underlying truth of the matter is more profound: SOA and WOA are two sides of the same coin. They both represent loose, overlapping collections of best practices, and the true best practice set is a superset of both.

The same argument applies with SOA and BPM. SOA and BPM are two sides of the same coin as well, with the keystone holding them both together being the working visualizations of the Services that support the business processes under management. Perhaps this is why SOA success has proven elusive for many organizations: the SOA, BPM, and WOA camps are often at odds with one another, competing for resources and attention where instead they must all work together for any of them to be successful.

The ZapThink Take
Success with combined SOA/BPM/WOA projects, therefore, depends on the successful implementation of the Business Service abstraction, which is at its heart an illusion. Relying so heavily on an illusion to support the broad range of business challenges that such projects are meant to address strikes fear into many a heart, both on the business and information technology (IT) sides of the organization. There's always someone (usually a developer) in every LZA course who wants a more concrete notion for a Service, and invariably confuses Business Services and Service interfaces as a result. Anybody who thinks they're talking about SOA when they're really talking about Web Services, for example, is making this mistake.

The business side has challenges with Service abstractions as well, but from a different perspective: they're skeptical about whether the solutions IT delivers will actually work as advertised. And for good reason; IT has never been very good at fully delivering on its promises to the business. Once the business gets wind of the fact that IT is proposing basing their architecture on an illusion, they're likely to pull all support for the initiative. For this reason the notion of Service semiotics is critically important, because it combines the notion of abstraction with the pragmatics of getting such abstractions to actually work as promised. Only when IT can deliver working visualizations of Services to the business that the business can actually use to solve real problems will SOA, or or that matter, BPM or WOA, be truly successful.

Learn more at one of our upcoming Licensed ZapThink Architect Bootcamps or SOA & Cloud Governance courses.

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise. As president of Intellyx, Mr. Bloomberg brings his years of thought leadership in the areas of Cloud Computing, Enterprise Architecture, and Service-Oriented Architecture to a global clientele of business executives, architects, software vendors, and Cloud service providers looking to achieve technology-enabled business agility across their organizations and for their customers. His latest book, The Agile Architecture Revolution (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), sets the stage for Mr. Bloomberg’s groundbreaking Agile Architecture vision.

Mr. Bloomberg is perhaps best known for his twelve years at ZapThink, where he created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) SOA course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, the leading SOA advisory and analysis firm, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011. He now runs the successor to the LZA program, the Bloomberg Agile Architecture Course, around the world.

Mr. Bloomberg is a frequent conference speaker and prolific writer. He has published over 500 articles, spoken at over 300 conferences, Webinars, and other events, and has been quoted in the press over 1,400 times as the leading expert on agile approaches to architecture in the enterprise.

Mr. Bloomberg’s previous book, Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, 2006, coauthored with Ron Schmelzer), is recognized as the leading business book on Service Orientation. He also co-authored the books XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996).

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting).

@ThingsExpo Stories
"We're a cybersecurity firm that specializes in engineering security solutions both at the software and hardware level. Security cannot be an after-the-fact afterthought, which is what it's become," stated Richard Blech, Chief Executive Officer at Secure Channels, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Consumers increasingly expect their electronic "things" to be connected to smart phones, tablets and the Internet. When that thing happens to be a medical device, the risks and benefits of connectivity must be carefully weighed. Once the decision is made that connecting the device is beneficial, medical device manufacturers must design their products to maintain patient safety and prevent compromised personal health information in the face of cybersecurity threats. In his session at @ThingsExpo...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Grape Up will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct. 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Grape Up is a software company specializing in cloud native application development and professional services related to Cloud Foundry PaaS. With five expert teams that operate in various sectors of the market across the U.S. and Europe, Grape Up works with a variety of customers from emergi...
Detecting internal user threats in the Big Data eco-system is challenging and cumbersome. Many organizations monitor internal usage of the Big Data eco-system using a set of alerts. This is not a scalable process given the increase in the number of alerts with the accelerating growth in data volume and user base. Organizations are increasingly leveraging machine learning to monitor only those data elements that are sensitive and critical, autonomously establish monitoring policies, and to detect...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Massive Networks will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Massive Networks mission is simple. To help your business operate seamlessly with fast, reliable, and secure internet and network solutions. Improve your customer's experience with outstanding connections to your cloud.
Everything run by electricity will eventually be connected to the Internet. Get ahead of the Internet of Things revolution and join Akvelon expert and IoT industry leader, Sergey Grebnov, in his session at @ThingsExpo, for an educational dive into the world of managing your home, workplace and all the devices they contain with the power of machine-based AI and intelligent Bot services for a completely streamlined experience.
Because IoT devices are deployed in mission-critical environments more than ever before, it’s increasingly imperative they be truly smart. IoT sensors simply stockpiling data isn’t useful. IoT must be artificially and naturally intelligent in order to provide more value In his session at @ThingsExpo, John Crupi, Vice President and Engineering System Architect at Greenwave Systems, will discuss how IoT artificial intelligence (AI) can be carried out via edge analytics and machine learning techn...
In the enterprise today, connected IoT devices are everywhere – both inside and outside corporate environments. The need to identify, manage, control and secure a quickly growing web of connections and outside devices is making the already challenging task of security even more important, and onerous. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Rich Boyer, CISO and Chief Architect for Security at NTT i3, discussed new ways of thinking and the approaches needed to address the emerging challenges of security i...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Datera, that offers a radically new data management architecture, has been named "Exhibitor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo ®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Datera is transforming the traditional datacenter model through modern cloud simplicity. The technology industry is at another major inflection point. The rise of mobile, the Internet of Things, data storage and Big...
SYS-CON Events announced today that GrapeUp, the leading provider of rapid product development at the speed of business, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Grape Up is a software company, specialized in cloud native application development and professional services related to Cloud Foundry PaaS. With five expert teams that operate in various sectors of the market acr...
From 2013, NTT Communications has been providing cPaaS service, SkyWay. Its customer’s expectations for leveraging WebRTC technology are not only typical real-time communication use cases such as Web conference, remote education, but also IoT use cases such as remote camera monitoring, smart-glass, and robotic. Because of this, NTT Communications has numerous IoT business use-cases that its customers are developing on top of PaaS. WebRTC will lead IoT businesses to be more innovative and address...
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named "Platinum Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business - from apparel to energy - is being rewritten by software. From planning to development to management to security, CA creates software that fuels transformation for companies in the applic...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 21st Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devic...
In his opening keynote at 20th Cloud Expo, Michael Maximilien, Research Scientist, Architect, and Engineer at IBM, discussed the full potential of the cloud and social data requires artificial intelligence. By mixing Cloud Foundry and the rich set of Watson services, IBM's Bluemix is the best cloud operating system for enterprises today, providing rapid development and deployment of applications that can take advantage of the rich catalog of Watson services to help drive insights from the vast t...
Recently, IoT seems emerging as a solution vehicle for data analytics on real-world scenarios from setting a room temperature setting to predicting a component failure of an aircraft. Compared with developing an application or deploying a cloud service, is an IoT solution unique? If so, how? How does a typical IoT solution architecture consist? And what are the essential components and how are they relevant to each other? How does the security play out? What are the best practices in formulating...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Arvind Radhakrishnen discussed how IoT offers new business models in banking and financial services organizations with the capability to revolutionize products, payments, channels, business processes and asset management built on strong architectural foundation. The following topics were covered: How IoT stands to impact various business parameters including customer experience, cost and risk management within BFS organizations.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Elastifile will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Elastifile Cloud File System (ECFS) is software-defined data infrastructure designed for seamless and efficient management of dynamic workloads across heterogeneous environments. Elastifile provides the architecture needed to optimize your hybrid cloud environment, by facilitating efficient...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Golden Gate University will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Since 1901, non-profit Golden Gate University (GGU) has been helping adults achieve their professional goals by providing high quality, practice-based undergraduate and graduate educational programs in law, taxation, business and related professions. Many of its courses are taug...
SYS-CON Events announced today that DXWorldExpo has been named “Global Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Digital Transformation is the key issue driving the global enterprise IT business. Digital Transformation is most prominent among Global 2000 enterprises and government institutions.
An increasing number of companies are creating products that combine data with analytical capabilities. Running interactive queries on Big Data requires complex architectures to store and query data effectively, typically involving data streams, an choosing efficient file format/database and multiple independent systems that are tied together through custom-engineered pipelines. In his session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Tomer Levi, a senior software engineer at Intel’s Advanced Analytics ...