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Killer, Gorilla, Guerilla SOA

21 Sep
The Proposition

Just read an interesting post by Jim Webber about a lighter weight technique for SOA implementation that he calls Guerilla SOA.  This spurred a number of comments from people such as Joe McKendrick, Tony Baer and ZapThink’s Jason Bloomberg.  Generally the comments were positive excepting the usual concerns about bottom up implementations leading nowhere.

Guerilla Campaigns Need Direction

As I’ve discussed previously I’m a big fan of thinking broadly but starting small, since with difficult to grasp concepts like SOA we have to rapidly and continually deliver benefit to generate buy in from our business colleagues.  As a result I am intrigued and broadly supportive of the concept of guerilla SOA implementation.  The key thing in my view, however, is to start in the right way by concentrating initially on getting a broad view of the business capabilities needed by the enterprise through a rapid approximation and then use these as a governing framework for the implementation of services within the organisation. I’m a firm believer in mixing systematic design with a dash of chaos – essentially govern the top level business capabilities required by the organisation but then delegate responsibility for the realisation of these downwards (and since this is a fractal process there are a limited number of capabilities at each level and as such the decision making process is made simpler by restricting the number of abstractions that any one group of people need to manage).  As a result we allow capability owners to realise services any way that they want – potentially meaning that many replicated services spring up across the organisation within the control of different capabilities – since the only thing we care about is that we have the ‘right’ capabilities and that these perform to the cost and quality metrics that we require.  In this context sharing of services at lower levels of granularity will be an emergent property caused by attempts to improve the cost effectiveness and quality of capabilities rather than something that is planned for from day one (which requires a deep and complex understanding of how everything in the organisation works from top to bottom – an impossible task despite the best efforts of many current enterprise architecture approaches).  Equally importantly in this context, attempting to force capability owners to share smaller granularity services by looking for ‘reuse’ often damages these business capabilities in subtle ways that are impossible to guess ahead of time – as a result independence with future emergent sharing opportunities based on metrics is a more appropriate mechanism IMHO (which now that I’ve read that sounds a bit like the agile principle of only building what you need – hadn’t really thought about it within a business context like that before – gives a whole different spin to the hackneyed term ‘agile business’).

Executing Your Campaign

Now the question is how this relates to the discussion of guerilla SOA?  I would argue that the notions of business capabilities and guerilla SOA are orthogonal and complementary.  Essentially you map out the broad ‘shape’ of the organisation (your campaign goals) using business capabilities – consider this the horizontal dimension – but then concentrate on federated projects (guerilla operations) that maximise value in the improvement of these capabilities and fill them out using agile implementation styles, essentially rapidly implementing elements of capabilities with focused projects – consider this the vertical dimension.  The reality is that no business design (or indeed guerilla campaign) can ever be correct and pre-planned from top to bottom at any point in time and so the key is to rapidly approximate the systematic capabilities needed by the organisation and then get on with implementing value in a stepwise fashion.  Your governance process will need to be able to cope with changes – e.g. versioning of capabilities, business messages and everything else – as your transition to SOA proceeds but there is no way to nail all of this up front and for ever and so you’d better get used to that and move on.  Essentially anyone who comes to you and suggests a top-down process re-engineering exercise should be politely shown the door, since such exercises take years, are always out of date and never actually deliver any sustainable value.  Let’s call this top down approach “Killer SOA” as it is guaranteed to go nowhere and will quickly lead to a morass of paperwork that scuppers your attempts at SOA.  Conversely however just pitching in like a gorilla without any context will make you look busy and actually deliver some stuff but it won’t really add up to anything that makes a significant difference to your organisation – the sum of the parts will really be just the parts (and it’ll be more complex and expensive to deliver, operate and manage).  Let’s call this bottom up approach “Gorilla SOA” as we can imagine it as a chase for the next banana without any concern for what such plundering might do to the environment that sustains us.  To me Guerilla SOA takes the best approach possible, relying on a combination of a broad plan and lots of loosely coordinated and federated cells with the power to implement in a situationally appropriate way.  

Enable Guerillas to Improvise in Realising Goals

This approach to business capability realisation is also applicable in the technology space as well.  I am glad to see Jim stating (and an increasing number of other people realising) that technology as architecture (e.g. ESBs/application servers/whatever) is both meaningless and dangerous.  As I’ve discussed in the past trying to force centralised architectural approaches onto an essentially heterogeneous business environment (heterogeneous from a requirements perspective (e.g. QoS or cost requirements) as well as a technical one) leads to an environment that is fit for nobody.  Architectural approaches should concentrate on the space between capabilities (i.e. standards that support interoperability (or an overall loose coordination of cells)) and on the governance of the required outputs (i.e. capability metricisation and performance management (or realisation of strategic operations)) and enable capability owners (and guerillas) to maximise existing assets or new approaches that best map to their goals and aspirations rather than on trying to use technology as an excuse for architecture (I have to also admit to having a particular distaste for ‘ESBs’ which in most incarnations are just hub-and-spoke message hubs with proprietary transport which undermine the very notions of SOA – i.e. federation, standardisation and interoperability – but I guess that’s another post, grrr ;-)).

It’s the Difference Between Killer, Gorilla and Guerilla that Matters

In the broader context the question is whether Jim’s comments reflect an anarchic and directionless dead-end of random service implementation or a dynamic and manageable way to break the SOA deadlock within organisations.  To me the question you have to ask yourself is whether you are a Killer that drowns your organisation in paperwork, a Gorilla who just wades into SOA in an elemental fashion with little thought beyond the moment or whether you are a Guerilla who is part of a larger group of loosely federated fighters striving to realise a shared vision. 


I realise that many people refer to ‘Guerilla SOA’ as ‘Middle Out’ (see Nick Malik for an example).  To me the two terms describe the same thing but whereas ‘Guerilla’ makes me think of glamour, adventure and action ‘Middle Out’ makes me think of the male aging process and brings to mind increasing flabbiness around the midriff and balding.  Just sounds less exciting doesn’t it, especially when we’re trying to convince people to follow us into action, LOL 😉