The high demands of on-demand computing

Joel Gruber, CIO of RouteOne LLC, a startup joint venture backed by the American Big Three automakers and Toyota Corp., is living the highest order on-demand dream. Gruber is building a fast, flexible business process that will consolidate all the different credit application processes of the automakers and some participating banks so that car dealers can enter a customer’s information once and know if a loan is accepted from all the different companies. No rekeying for each credit application.

The business payoff? Speed. Dealers can get a customer’s name on a contract before he can change his mind and walk out of the dealership.

But it hasn’t been easy. The technology for making a single unit of customer information cross the Internet and interact with different computer systems that all have different languages and formats is still complex. RouteOne’s system relies on applications written in Java and IBM Corp.’s Websphere application server. And he notes making the technology work is not easy.

“I’m continually impressed by the effort and expense required to do this kind of application development,” says Gruber, who has 25 people working full time on the application’s development and deployment.

Part of the complexity, according to Gruber, is the Java programming language itself, which, while powerful and scalable, exposes to developers a lot of programming complexity that is hidden in more mature environments.

Another difficulty is Web services. Gruber’s team has to keep an eye on constantly evolving standards while programming the application. “You have to have a pretty good idea of where the technology is headed while you’re designing the application,” says Gruber. “I need to have someone keeping an eye on the standards. I have to have a lot of high-powered, high-priced people working on this. It’s daunting.”

Just as daunting, he says, is nailing the requirements for a process that crosses the borders of big auto companies and large banks. Their parallel processes for credit applications all differ slightly. Just setting up the governance model for the joint venture and getting IT employees on loan from the different car companies took three months, he says. It has taken his team a year to arrive at a process that all the companies can accept.

Gruber is confident that the new application will be a hit with dealers when it goes live this summer, but he’s left with the feeling that collaborative business processes need to be improved. “They have to make it easier for guys like me to do this,” he says.