SOA yields strong return on investment


For many companies, the move to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) can yield substantial rewards, including reduced operating costs and better customer service. But those benefits only show up after companies work through thorny problems like obtaining executive buy-in, shifting the way development groups operate and hammering out sometimes contentious new business rules, according to users at The Open Group’s Enterprise Architecture Practitioners Conference in San Diego.

At Marriott International Inc., for example, SOA has been identified as one of the corporation’s three strategic technology platforms, along with business intelligence and commercial off-the-shelf software, said John Whitridge, Marriott’s vice president of enterprise architecture. The Bethesda, Md.-based company has tapped SOA to help shorten development times and pull more value from legacy systems.

“One of the primary benefits of SOA is to get our solutions to market faster and anticipate and respond to competitive threats quicker,” Whitridge said. “We’re not taking SOA as a rip-and-replace strategy. We’re trying to figure out how to use what we have and enhance it.”

To that end, Marriott is working to mitigate some of the challenges a move toward an SOA can bring, he said. Last year, the company revived its enterprise architecture group — which had dissolved because it was only staffed with employees dedicated to it part time — to lead the SOA effort, Whitridge said. The company’s enterprise architecture team linked the benefits of an SOA to Marriott’s corporate strategies of becoming more agile and growing.

The group also designed a “maturity model,” essentially a road map that outlines the principles and guidelines for an SOA plan and highlights some of the incremental benefits expected along the way. “It is very easy for IT people to say, ‘Give me money and you will get benefits,'” Whitridge said. “[But] if you are doing cost avoidance … how do you show you are 50% cheaper? Make the SOA journey be something the business buys into.”

Con-way Inc., a freight transportation and logistics company, has seen substantial ROI from its SOA, which it has been building out since 1998, said Maja Tibbling, lead enterprise architect at the San Mateo, Calif.-based company. For example, she said, the company can change a business process on the fly as soon as an alteration is needed because the IT department can modify the orchestration of the services that make up a process instead of rewriting code, she said. (See Computerworld Q&A with Tibbling.)

To help Con-way avoid being commoditized in the increasingly competitive freight industry, its IT shop was forced to find ways to deliver applications more quickly. Before the move to the SOA, Con-way had a one-day lag between changes in operational data and the update of back-end systems to reflect those changes. Now, that information — contained in various front- and back-office systems — is in sync, Tibbling said.

In addition, the SOA supports the electronic transmission of data to customs officials in Canada. That has allowed the company to slash the time it takes for one of its trucks to be cleared to cross the border from two to three hours to less than a minute, Tibbling said. “After the first few projects, we were able to show we could get faster times to market and we could reduce development costs,” she said.

But to get Con-way to where it is now, the architects had to evangelize SOA to developers and business users, she said. For developers, selling SOA meant emphasizing that they could stop doing “daily grind” common coding. It also meant setting up a services repository with clearly defined data about the functions of various services. That move is aimed at helping developers trust that the services would work as advertised, according to Tibbling.

“SOA is not something the business directly cares about,” she said. “You have to identify the value that they care about, and that is the value you will sell.”

Intuit Inc. is relying on SOA to enable it to more quickly absorb new acquisitions and to more easily integrate data related to customers and processes, said Robert Roth, director of shared development and services at the Mountain View, Calif-based company. After 25 acquisitions, Intuit found itself with customer interaction across more channels than it ever had, and it needed ways to move data across the company quickly, Roth said

Intuit has relied on the SOA to integrate data and create a single point of reference about customers, partners or anyone with whom the company interacts. In addition, the SOA is the foundation for a single interface that can accept orders from multiple channels for Intuit products and feed the order information to three different ERP systems, he said.

While these SOA projects have been a success, developing them came with challenges, Roth said. It was difficult for Intuit to get a single set of business rules — such as a common definition of a customer — associated with the SOA, he said. Because various departments have different ways of defining a customer, the company built different service interfaces for different user groups, he said.

For these and other challenges where the SOA planners struggled to get a complete consensus, Intuit relied on a “shared vision,” where all employees key to a decision agreed. “Many of these solutions were implemented where not everyone in the company agreed on the outcome, but the core stakeholders did,” Roth said. “We would still be deciding on the definition of a customer if we waited for consensus. We made a conscious decision to leave some people off the bandwagon.”


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