Barney's Rubble

A Scheme Too Grand

Despite all the talk surrounding SOA, will the technology crash and burn like many others before?

I've always been skeptical of grand schemes. They didn't work for Karl Marx or the Third Reich, and almost never work when it comes to software.

That doesn't stop grandiose thinkers from trying.

In the early '90s IBM was in danger of losing total control of the software market to Microsoft. Its answer was a scheme that made every rational computer scientist's head spin clean off. Workplace OS was supposed to make nearly every IBM operating system run on nearly every IBM hardware platform, and thus any application could run on any box.

Want to run minicomputer software on a PC? No prob. How about OS/2 on big iron? Workplace OS had that covered too.

I was just a lowly journalist writing for InfoWorld at the time (when it still took trees and ink to produce the darn thing) but this Workplace OS struck me as a wee bit ambitious. Heck, I was having a tough enough time just getting Windows software to run on Windows!

I started hearing that the earliest and simplest pieces of Workplace OS weren't going so well -- which made me question the whole premise. In an article that had IBM representatives talking lawsuit, I argued that the whole scheme was too complex, and given the state of the art of computer science at the time, couldn't work. Turns out I was right.

I've seen other schemes fail to live up to the promises. Java's pretty cool, but is it really write once run everywhere? What about Sun's Jini, a plan to let any new hardware automatically be recognized and used across the network -- kind of an uber hardware driver? Jini still exists, but so do my problems connecting to local printers (never mind devices three thousand miles away)!

Microsoft has one such doozy in the form of Cairo, an operating system that was supposed to be the ultimate in distributed computing and smart file access. Cairo's feature list was way too big for Microsoft's development britches, and the OS never shipped (except as pieces embedded in other tools).

Which leads me to SOA, or Service Oriented Architecture. SOA software is supposed to run on any system (echoes of Workplace OS) and communicate easily with other apps (a software equivalent of Jini?). And all these bits of newfangled SOA code can be reused (didn't we use to call that object-oriented programming?).

And best of all, your legacy apps (read: spaghetti code) can be SOA-enabled so they can run anywhere and talk to anything, and this old convoluted code -- that should've been junked decades ago -- can be used again and again in other apps.

I'm sure a SOA guru somewhere -- there's money to be made in making sense of the intrinsically complex, just ask my Volvo mechanic -- will correct my definition and explain why SOA's the greatest thing in software since 10 print "hello world."

To me SOA may be great, but knowing that IBM is one of its biggest proponents, it might be another hugely expensive, massively complex technology that even Wikipedia wonks won't remember.

What's your take? Tell us all at

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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