One of the current buzzwords in the IT industry is that of service-oriented architecture (SOA), which seems to be viewed by many as the panacea for any number of business ills.

SOA is presently enjoying similar hype to that which surrounded any number of other "cure-all" solutions, such as CRM, business intelligence and countless other technologies or concepts that were perceived as the answer to technology problems.

What SOA offers is a way of structuring software components to get additional benefits in a standardised way, without necessarily providing anything unique or additional. It is simply one approach of software design that does not negate other approaches.

"The reality of the situation is that SOA is no quick fix, no be all and end all, but rather a process and approach which can be adopted by a company to better align IT with business," says Nick McKenzie, technical director at nVisionIT.

He believes the technology industry – and business – needs to come to grips with some fundamental facts about what SOA actually is, exactly what it can do and where it should be applied.

"For starters, SOA cannot just be brought into any environment, as moving from one architecture to another is a process; all organisations have different states of readiness and therefore have differing stages that they must go through on the road to SOA."

McKenzie says SOA is, to all intents and purposes, very much like biological evolution, in that just as with biological development, one cannot miss a step or suddenly go from being one creature to being another one entirely. With SOA there is no sudden jump from one architecture to another.

"If you skip a phase, all you will end up with is the same problems – and quite likely several new ones too – as your organisation had before," he says.

"People need to realise that SOA will not magically solve integration issues or suddenly allow companies to reuse components of software. In other words there are numerous underlying design decisions and imperatives that have to first be considered," he adds.

McKenzie says any business that wants to move to SOA will have to go through four different levels of maturity, as described by MIT Sloan.

"It starts with application silo architecture, which is mostly individual applications, moving through standardised architecture involving more standardisation and centralisation, to a rationalised data architecture which includes the standardisation of data and processes, ultimately resulting in a SOA."

Going back to the evolution analogy, McKenzie notes that the progression from these levels is linear. "A company cannot skip any phases, otherwise it will be doomed to go back and learn the hard lessons of the leapfrogged phase."

He points out that moving to SOA has to happen iteratively and predictably; however there are a considerable number of methodologies and approaches, so a company has to choose the right one for its needs. Furthermore, there is no one size fits all.

"My advice to those who seek a cure-all from SOA is simply to cool their jets – SOA is not something that turns on like a switch and it’s not a commodity.

"It is an approach to technology infrastructure that requires a level of organisation readiness which most certainly has value, but it requires a mature approach and should be driven by business needs," he says.