A pack of top software vendors has announced a new specification the companies hope will simplify application development using SOA.

Service Component Architecture (SCA) aims to create another layer that separates the business logic of an IT infrastructure from the underlying applications and middleware. BEA Systems executive Bill Roth, who writes a blog aimed at developers, describes SCA as "a deployment descriptor on steroids" that will work with any programming language, not just Java.

SCA's backers include BEA, IBM, SAP, Oracle and Siebel Systems, among others. A key component of SCA is the Service Data Objects (SDO) specification, a blueprint IBM and BEA drafted several years ago and have already incorporated into some of their own software. SDO helps programmers access and manipulate data from heterogeneous sources, including relational databases, XML (Extensible Markup Language) data sources and enterprise applications.

"There's been a lot of buzz about web services, but the programming necessary to utilise those technologies has been very primitive so far," said Ed Cobb, BEA's vice president of standards and architecture. "One of the goals we had with SCA was to make it easier to build real services in programming languages like Java and C++."

One noteworthy aspect of the SCA announcement is the completeness of the lineup of vendors backing it. Every major ERP vendor is involved, along with middleware giants IBM and BEA. Java creator Sun Microsystems is one glaring omission on the list of SCA sponsors, but executives involved in the specification's creation say they're talking with Sun and expect it to be involved in SCA's development.

"We're past the point of companies being able to have the luxury of deciding whether or not to do an SOA," said ZapThink analyst Ron Schmelzer. "It's very clear that's the direction all of those vendors are going."

SOA is a design approach that aims to alleviate application and data integration problems by using standards-based web services to link software components. Forrester Research Inc. estimates that 77 percent of large enterprises will be actively implementing SOAs by the end of this year.

BEA's Cobb offered an example to illustrate how SCA can help companies advance their SOA work. Imagine a firm that specialises in personal insurance decides to buy a company that focuses on auto insurance. The personal insurance company writes its applications in Java, runs them against a relational database, and uses call centres and a network of direct sales agents to tap new customers. The auto insurance specialist is a C++ shop that primarily sells through the web and relies on XML data storage. Integrating two such disparate IT systems would be a nightmare, but with a services approach, each can continue running its own set up.

"You take services from each of the systems using SCA to compose them together, so [the company] can use the best pieces of each of the technologies, and you use SDO to share data between the two systems," Cobb said. "The net result is a more comprehensive system."

SCA's backers plan to eventually submit the specification to a standards body, although that's probably a good way off since SCA is new and remains in draft form, according to IBM Vice President of Software Standards Karla Norsworthy. Still, SCA's backers plan to push forward on use of the specification. IBM will have code for developer experimentation available on its website within weeks, Norsworthy said.

Interarbor Solutions principal analyst Dana Gardner called SCA a "logical next step" as vendors increasingly adopt a standards-and-services approach, but he questioned how effective yet more standards and integration technologies will be in helping customers.

"If every three years enterprises need to swallow yet another level of integration complexity and a new approach to simplifying that complexity, then when are they finally going to say, 'Hey, I want to get off this merry-go-round'?" Gardner said.

Gardner expects that an increasing number of companies, particularly smaller ones, will take advantage of the integration opportunities web services afford to build linked systems but outsource the work of handling the underlying applications to hosted software vendors like Salesforce.com, which has made significant headway in the CRM market.

"If we keep applying technology to the level where everything becomes a service that's easily orchestrated, we get to the point where it makes sense to punt - dump the underlying technology, outsource, and manage the applications as services," Gardner said.