Tuesday, July 17, 2007

'SOA' Stirs a Computing Buzz

The Wall Street Journal
17 July 2007 - B4

'SOA' Stirs a Computing Buzz
'Modular' Software Lets Services Be Used Across Business's Parts
By Christopher Lawton
Andres Carvallo, chief information officer of Austin Energy, was looking for a way to test the utility's new software system for handling customer-service calls. He got his wish when a storm hit the state's capital in May 2006.
The night of the storm, roughly 52,000 customers lost power, according to the company's records. Over the next three days, the Austin, Texas, utility -- whose software was upgraded to handle 50,000 calls an hour, up from 4,000 previously -- coped with heavy call volume.
"The phone system never went down, never had a hiccup. It was flawless," says Mr. Carvallo.
Chalk up a success for a software-development scheme called service oriented architecture, or SOA, that has become one of the most ballyhooed buzz phrases in corporate computing. It's a loosely defined concept, overlapping with other Web-based advancements and programming trends that have been discussed for more than a decade.
In essence, SOA allows business processes -- like verifying a customer's address or checking credit ratings -- to be built using modular chunks of software called "services" that can communicate with each other and be used across different parts of a business. The services are often centrally stored in a repository and can be called up by other programs as needed.
The approach can save companies time and money because the software modules can be reused and reconfigured in new ways. So companies can avoid starting from scratch when they want to build new software applications or add new capabilities to existing ones.
Vladimir Mitevski, vice president of product management, core services, for Thomson Financial, says it once took six weeks and roughly 20 people to build, deploy and maintain service offerings for Thomson One, a software platform for the financial industry. After adopting a service-oriented architecture, in part using software from Hewlett-Packard Co., Mr. Mitevski says a single programmer working with various businesses, quality testing and support groups within the company can deploy new and updated offerings in as little as 15 minutes. He cites "speed to market" as his No. 1 reason for adopting the methodology.
H-P isn't alone. Many big technology vendors -- including International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp., SAP AG and others -- are offering software that can be used to create SOA-based business applications, as well as services to help companies analyze their operations to decide how to deploy SOA.
Austin Energy, for example, relied on IBM software to construct a system that helps with chores like verifying customer information or figuring out which specialized crew members to send to fix outages -- reducing the time it takes over the phone to dispatch a crew to fix outages to two minutes from seven, Mr. Carvallo says.
SOA has been around in its current form since the early 2000s, analysts say. But its momentum has been building. Forrester Research estimates that by the end of 2007, some 62% of North American and European companies expect to adopt a service-oriented architecture in some fashion.
"I don't believe we can ignore SOA," says Evelyn Hubbert, an analyst with the market-research firm. "It will be how we manage applications in the future."
One satisfied user is Ameriprise Financial Services Inc.'s Tracy LeGrand, its chief architect and vice president of technology, strategy and architecture, who says that the technology allowed the company to release Dream Plan Track, a financial-planning approach that the company launched last year, within a year after the company was spun off from American Express Co.
Ameriprise was able to tap into a repository of already-defined services such as address changes for customers. "Instead of having to buy or build something new, we can reuse it," says Mr. LeGrand.
Still, analysts and companies that sell SOA-related software and services warn that the leap to the new technology isn't easy. For one thing, companies need to set up a system to help keep track of the services they deploy, where they should be used and who is allowed to use them.
Rather than ripping and replacing major parts of a company's information-technology infrastructure -- a costly process that can cause business disruptions -- analysts advise a more incremental strategy. Randy Heffner, who is also with Forrester, suggests that users apply SOA to one business problem at a time that is guided by a higher-level overall business strategy.
Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District had a number of problems. They included heavy call volume, long lines of parents waiting for transportation services and limited ways to get information such as spelling lists or grade information to parents, says Patrick Plant, the district's director of technology and information services. The school district also used cards that needed to be filled out with emergency-notification information each year.
In 2004, with the help of Microsoft software and services from H-P, the district began developing an SOA-based system that links services that span curriculum, security, health and human resources. Now parents can do much of their business with the district online, including checking grades, attendance and student lunch-account balances.
The new system is a big time-saver, Mr. Plant says. "Until we could start linking those systems together with a service-oriented architecture, the best we could do was create paper-based proofing sheets."
So the success of our SOA has landed me on the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Quite an honor. I surely hope that their readers and most enterprises realize what I did 5 years ago. SOA is the way of the future and it allows IT to move at the speed of the Business.

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