What is service-oriented architecture?

An introduction to SOA

Get a primer on SOA, starting with the basic question of what a service-oriented architecture is and what comprises a Java-based SOA infrastructure at the core, platform, and quality-of-services level. 

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is an evolution of distributed computing based on the request/reply design paradigm for synchronous and asynchronous applications. An application's business logic or individual functions are modularized and presented as services for consumer/client applications. What's key to these services is their loosely coupled nature; i.e., the service interface is independent of the implementation. Application developers or system integrators can build applications by composing one or more services without knowing the services' underlying implementations. For example, a service can be implemented either in .Net or J2EE, and the application consuming the service can be on a different platform or language.

Service-oriented architectures have the following key characteristics:

  • SOA services have self-describing interfaces in platform-independent XML documents. Web Services Description Language (WSDL) is the standard used to describe the services.
  • SOA services communicate with messages formally defined via XML Schema (also called XSD). Communication among consumers and providers or services typically happens in heterogeneous environments, with little or no knowledge about the provider. Messages between services can be viewed as key business documents processed in an enterprise.
  • SOA services are maintained in the enterprise by a registry that acts as a directory listing. Applications can look up the services in the registry and invoke the service. Universal Description, Definition, and Integration (UDDI) is the standard used for service registry.
  • Each SOA service has a quality of service (QoS) associated with it. Some of the key QoS elements are security requirements, such as authentication and authorization, reliable messaging, and policies regarding who can invoke services.

Why SOA?

The reality in IT enterprises is that infrastructure is heterogeneous across operating systems, applications, system software, and application infrastructure. Some existing applications are used to run current business processes, so starting from scratch to build new infrastructure isn't an option. Enterprises should quickly respond to business changes with agility; leverage existing investments in applications and application infrastructure to address newer business requirements; support new channels of interactions with customers, partners, and suppliers; and feature an architecture that supports organic business. SOA with its loosely coupled nature allows enterprises to plug in new services or upgrade existing services in a granular fashion to address the new business requirements, provides the option to make the services consumable across different channels, and exposes the existing enterprise and legacy applications as services, thereby safeguarding existing IT infrastructure investments.

SOA for cloud computing

Learn more about service-oriented architecture in the Java enterprise:

As in Figure 1's example, an enterprise employing SOA could create a supply chain composite application using a set of existing applications that expose the functionality via standard interfaces.

Figure 1. Supply chain application. Click on thumbnail to view full-sized image.

Service architecture

To implement SOA, enterprises need a service architecture, an example of which is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. A sample service architecture. Click on thumbnail to view full-sized image.

In Figure 2, several service consumers can invoke services by sending messages. These messages are typically transformed and routed by a service bus to an appropriate service implementation. This service architecture can provide a business rules engine that allows business rules to be incorporated in a service or across services. The service architecture also provides a service management infrastructure that manages services and activities like auditing, billing, and logging. In addition, the architecture offers enterprises the flexibility of having agile business processes, better addresses the regulatory requirements like Sarbanes Oxley (SOX), and changes individual services without affecting other services.

SOA infrastructure

To run and manage SOA applications, enterprises need an SOA infrastructure that is part of the SOA platform. An SOA infrastructure must support all the relevant standards and required runtime containers. A typical SOA infrastructure looks like Figure 3. The following sections discuss the infrastructure's individual pieces.

Figure 3. A typical SOA infrastructure. Click on thumbnail to view full-sized image.

SOAP, WSDL, UDDI

WSDL, UDDI, and SOAP are the fundamental pieces of the SOA infrastructure. WSDL is used to describe the service; UDDI, to register and look up the services; and SOAP, as a transport layer to send messages between service consumer and service provider. While SOAP is the default mechanism for Web services, alternative technologies accomplish other types of bindings for a service. A consumer can search for a service in the UDDI registry, get the WSDL for the service that has the description, and invoke the service using SOAP.

WS-I Basic Profile

WS-I Basic Profile, provided by the Web services Interoperability Organization, is turning into another core piece required for service testing and interoperability. Service providers can use the Basic Profile test suites to test a service's interoperability across different platforms and technologies.

J2EE and .Net

Though the J2EE and .Net platforms are the dominant development platforms for SOA applications, SOA is not by any means limited to these platforms. Platforms such as J2EE not only provide the framework for developers to naturally participate in the SOA, but also, by their inherent nature, bring a mature and proven infrastructure for scalability, reliability, availability, and performance to the SOA world. Newer specifications such as Java API for XML Binding (JAXB), used for mapping XML documents to Java classes, Java API for XML Registry (JAXR), used for interacting with the UDDI registries in a standard manner, and Java API for XML-based Remote Procedure Call (XML-RPC), used for invoking remote services in J2EE 1.4 facilitate the development and deployment of Web services that are portable across standard J2EE containers, while simultaneously interoperating with services across other platforms such as .Net.

Quality of services

Existing mission-critical systems in enterprises address advanced requirements such as security, reliability, and transactions. As enterprises start adopting service architecture as a vehicle for developing and deploying applications, basic Web services specifications like WSDL, SOAP, and UDDI aren't going to fulfill these advanced requirements. As mentioned previously, these requirements are also known as quality of services. Numerous specifications related to QoS are being worked out in standards bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Sections below discuss some of the QoS artifacts and related standards.

Security

The Web Services Security specification addresses message security. This specification focuses on credential exchange, message integrity, and message confidentiality. The attractive thing about this specification is it leverages existing security standards, such as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), and allows the usage of these standards to secure Web services messages. Web Services Security is an ongoing OASIS effort.

Reliability

In a typical SOA environment, several documents are exchanged between service consumers and service providers. Delivery of messages with characteristics like once-and-only-once delivery, at-most-once delivery, duplicate message elimination, guaranteed message delivery, and acknowledgment become important in mission-critical systems using service architecture. WS-Reliability and WS-ReliableMessaging are two standards that address the issues of reliable messaging. Both these standards are now part of OASIS.

Policy

Service providers sometimes require service consumers to communicate with certain policies. As an example, a service provider may require a Kerberos security token for accessing the service. These requirements are defined as policy assertions. A policy may consist of multiple assertions. WS-Policy standardizes how policies are to be communicated between service consumers and service providers.

Orchestration

As enterprises embark on service architecture, services can be used to integrate silos of data, applications, and components. Integrating applications means that the process requirements, such as asynchronous communication, parallel processing, data transformation, and compensation, must be standardized. BPEL4WS or WSBPEL (Web Services Business Process Execution Language) is an OASIS specification that addresses service orchestration, where business processes are created using a set of discrete services. WSBPEL is now part of OASIS.

Management

As the number of services and business processes exposed as services grow in the enterprise, a management infrastructure that lets the system administrators manage the services running in a heterogeneous environment becomes important. Web Services for Distributed Management (WSDM) will specify that any service implemented according to WSDM will be manageable by a WSDM-compliant management solution.

Other QoS attributes such as coordination between partners and transactions involving multiple services are being addressed in the WS-Coordination and WS-Transaction specifications, respectively, which are OASIS efforts as well.

SOA is not Web services

There seems to be general confusion about the relationship between SOA and Web services. In an April 2003 Gartner report, Yefim V. Natis makes the distinction as follows: "Web services are about technology specifications, whereas SOA is a software design principle. Notably, Web services' WSDL is an SOA-suitable interface definition standard: this is where Web services and SOA fundamentally connect." Fundamentally, SOA is an architectural pattern, while Web services are services implemented using a set of standards; Web services is one of the ways you can implement SOA. The benefit of implementing SOA with Web services is that you achieve a platform-neutral approach to accessing services and better interoperability as more and more vendors support more and more Web services specifications.

Benefits of SOA

While the SOA concept is fundamentally not new, SOA differs from existing distributed technologies in that most vendors accept it and have an application or platform suite that enables SOA. SOA, with a ubiquitous set of standards, brings better reusability of existing assets or investments in the enterprise and lets you create applications that can be built on top of new and existing applications. SOA enables changes to applications while keeping clients or service consumers isolated from evolutionary changes that happen in the service implementation. SOA enables upgrading individual services or services consumers; it is not necessary to completely rewrite an application or keep an existing system that no longer addresses the new business requirements. Finally, SOA provides enterprises better flexibility in building applications and business processes in an agile manner by leveraging existing application infrastructure to compose new services.

Raghu R. Kodali is consulting product manager and SOA evangelist for Oracle Application Server. Kodali leads next-generation SOA initiatives and J2EE feature sets for Oracle Application Server, with particular expertise in EJB, J2EE deployment, Web services, and BPEL. Prior to product management, Kodali held presales and technical marketing positions in Oracle Asia-Pacific, based in Singapore. Prior to Oracle, he worked as software developer with National Computer Systems, Singapore. He holds a master's degree in computer science and is a frequent speaker at technology conferences. Kodali maintains an active blog at Loosely Coupled Corner
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