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October 31, 2007

Bringing SOA to small enterprises

At the recent Butler Group and OASIS conference on SOA standards and their impact on the public sector, one speaker described the Japanese government's initiative to use SOA to boost the number of small- and medium-sized enterprises that conduct direct B2B e-commerce. This initiative may prove an example of good foresight, and could help give Japanese small businesses an edge over foreign rivals.

By CBR Staff Writer

Some 99% of all businesses in Japan fall into the small or medium category, and currently only 8% of these have the capability to conduct B2B electronic commerce. The government’s target is to raise this above 50%, with the help of SOA.

SOA is complex. This much is quite obvious to anyone that has looked at the methodologies, strategies, or technologies that have evolved around the architecture. In fact, the complexities start at the infrastructure level before becoming at all involved in the mechanics of SOA. Traditional SOA requires the requester of a service to be able to send a message that will cause it to respond.

The automatic assumption is that the service must be continually available – outages will cause processes to break and the requester to seek a different business partner. This 24/7 dependency is the result of the message ‘push’ model that is assumed by most SOA implementations, and is enshrined in ebXML 2.0. ebXML was started in 1999 as a joint initiative between the United Nations Centre for Trade facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). It has been instrumental in documenting the protocols required for effective e-business, but this has always been colored by the needs of the large organizations that have spearheaded the electronic commerce revolution.

As part of the initiative, work has been done on extending ebXML to support ‘pull’ messaging. In this variation, messages for a recipient will be stored until the receiving organization issues requests to retrieve them. In this way, small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that cannot justify the cost of running a full high-availability, 24/7 IT operation can create a far simpler IT infrastructure. Messages can be downloaded asynchronously at a time to suit the recipient. This extension to ebXML has now been approved by OASIS and formalized as ebXML 3.0 in October 2007.

Further work being carried out in Japan will result in creating a set of templates that can be used by small businesses to simplify and reduce the cost of implementing SOA. These two components of the initiative in Japan should reduce the risk, cost, and time for a small business to get up and running in electronic commerce, and have the potential to have a significant influence on the country’s overall business market. It could help the Japanese small business sector become more able to resist foreign commercial competitors.

The approach being taken by the Japanese government is in direct contrast to the majority opinion in western Europe. In Europe, it is still generally accepted that SOA is an architecture for the large and very large enterprise sectors. If SMEs are foolhardy enough to wish to enter the SOA-enabled electronic commerce market, then they have to pay the entry price of either implementing high-availability 24/7 systems or outsourcing their IT environment to a hosting provider. For some organizations the hosting option will be a good solution, while for others it will be overkill and unacceptably expensive.

The Japanese initiative shows that there is an alternative approach. It may not be ideal for all SMEs, but it certainly will be for some. There now seems to be a real chance that small businesses in Europe, and potentially other regions, will be disadvantaged in comparison to their Japanese equivalents, because the Japanese government has had the foresight to take a concept that is useful but limited in scope, and extend it to increase its applicability to the majority of commercial organizations.

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Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (

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