As a science fiction buff and a Mr. Wizard wannabe, I have, in recent years, become fascinated with the amazing theories of quantum physics.

I’ve read books on the subject (not all of them sci-fi), searched out articles online, and generally tried to get a grip on this esoteric body of knowledge, only to realize that grasping it is like trying to grab a handful of jell-o. Small wonder that when I try to talk to my physicist friend on this topic, he just smiles politely as his eyes glaze over, then asks where he can find the barbecue sauce.

In fact, quantum physics is an area of science that is so counterintuitive and so shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding that a famous quantum physicist once remarked: “Even quantum physicists don’t understand quantum physics.”

Ironically, this is very much the same situation the insurance industry finds itself in when discussing our latest whiz-bang technology buzzword–SOA, known to us non-cognoscenti types as “services-oriented architecture.”

It is no exaggeration to say that if you ask five experts for a definition of SOA, you will get five different answers. But, let me risk your eyes glazing over by distilling some of those answers in an effort to clear the murky waters.

A “service,” in this case, is a unit of work (collection of computer code) that has a specific function and purpose. This unit of work, once defined, can be re-used (and even modified) in a number of settings, thus it can be thought of as a multifaceted tool, maybe something like a Swiss Army knife. SOA, then, is a data architecture (structure) that provides such tools, which can operate across data platforms and standards.

Got that? Okay, there’s a little bit more. Those SOA resources (tools) can be made available as independent services on a computer network. No knowledge of underlying platforms is needed.

Finally, it is important to know that Web services are a common industry standard method to support SOA. According to Sun Microsystems, Web services are Web-based applications that use open, XML-based standards and transport protocols to exchange data with clients.

As you can see, my “simple” definition took a good three paragraphs to get out, and I’m betting that some of you are still a bit hazy on this subject–and understandably so. Fortunately, we have lots of IT experts who can provide more clear and concise elucidation. Or do we?

I was a panelist during a session at the recent IASA conference, and our moderator happened to ask the audience (many of whom were IT people) how many of them had SOA projects going in their companies. Incredibly, not one hand was raised.

Our moderator later speculated that if we had asked about Web services instead of SOA, we would have had many hands raised. The message to me, however, was that even among those who are the front-line insurance technology experts, SOA remains a fuzzy concept.

SOA is touted by software vendors as delivering a host of benefits, including increased interoperability between technologies, the ability to re-use legacy systems, and the provision of a framework for delivering new products faster–thereby enhancing a company’s bottom line.

While these benefits would seem to follow logically from our definition of SOA, it probably isn’t clear to most of us exactly how that would happen–any more than it is clear to us exactly how quantum physics will enable scientists to develop “transporters” that will beam humans from place to place.

And in truth, maybe it doesn’t have to be perfectly clear. What technology buyers and users do have to know, however, is very clear.

SOA cannot be purchased. You won’t find it in a shiny box on the shelf at your local CompUSA. Certain products may or may not lend themselves to making services available, but no one company holds the copyright on doing that. Indeed, SOA is not something you buy; it is something you do in structuring your enterprise.

Knowing that, you can confidently look askance at any vendor who claims his product will deliver SOA as a complete package.

Beware. Vendors know you think you need SOA and they also know that SOA is as easy to comprehend as quantum physics. Most vendors are honest enough to tell you the truth about how their products support, or don’t support SOA, but needless to say, there are some who are quite content to let you think you’re getting something that, in fact, is not for sale.

So, shall we talk further about SOA, or would you like know the whereabouts of the barbecue sauce?