Vancity is one of those companies that seems to relish being a leader. Not only is the Vancouver-based credit union the largest in the country, with $9 billion in assets, it also has a Tiger Woodslike knack for winning awards. To name but a couple it has garnered in the last year, Vancity was named “Best place to work in Canada” by Maclean’s Magazine, and “Marketer of the Year” by the BC Chapter of the American Marketing Association. And the list goes on.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Vancity’s IT division is following in that laudable tradition. In 2003, the division became an early adopter of Web services and is now at the point of embarking on large-scale deployment of the technology, while others are sitting on the sidelines, still in evaluation mode.
CIO Rowena Liang knew that moving early into Web services would mean encountering some teething problems, but she felt that by 2003 the technology was mature enough to forge ahead.
“Sometimes early technologies are solutions trying to find a problem. But at the time we went with Web services, we could see the business value,” she said. “We needed to simplify things, and it was the right technology to use.”
The essential problem that Vancity wanted to address with Web services was one familiar to most CIOs: the tight coupling of applications. Applications remained in the company for so many years that they became tightly integrated with each other and were extremely hard to replace. This was a large pain point for the IT division.
The vision was to remove that tight coupling and have applications physically separated from each other, so that when any one piece of the overall system needed replacing, it could be done with very little impact on the other applications.
If Liang had any doubts about the ability of Web services to address this problem, they were alleviated by Technical Architect, Rob Church. A strong advocate of Web services, he was confident that the technology would provide the solution the company was looking for.
“With Web services, rather than replacing systems as a whole, you can pick specific pieces of functionality and replace just those pieces, one by one,” he said.
“When it comes to integration, there are two key things: how you integrate, and the data that you communicate across those two pieces,” he added. “The joy of Web services is that it removes half of the equation — how you integrate — and allows you to focus on the data. Many of the technical challenges around integration are removed.”
Rolling out Web services
As Web services are more or less transparent to the user community, Vancity’s IT division had a free hand to move forward as it saw fit. But even leaders must be cautious, and the division’s initial approach was a prudent one.
“We didn’t start out by saying, ‘Okay, we are going to implement Web services.’ We began very slowly,” said Liang. “At first we tried implementing a few components, just to experiment with the technology. Once we built them, we found there were more and more uses that we could apply them to. We’d implement one component and then the next opportunity would come about and we’d implement another one. So the process was evolutionary.”
Vancity’s first Web services implementation centred on enabling the company’s many information systems to have better access to employee information. In most organizations there are many places where employee information is held — things like HR information, payroll information, distribution lists, and so on. By integrating an Employee Information Web service with the company’s Active Directory and HR system, various types of employee information were made available over the company’s intranet. Currently, more than ten different systems make use of this capability.
Following on that initial success, Vancity has now rolled out a half dozen Web services initiatives, including a shared service to manage unique member identity information and a number of services around Electronic Data Interchange.
Re-engineering core systems
Though the concept of reuse was the driving factor in Vancity’s move to Web services, the company has been contemplating a more ambitious future for the technology. The plan now is to use it to re-engineer some of its systems. Most notably, the company is embarking on a multi-year program to revamp its core banking applications using Web services where it makes sense.
“In the banking world, access channels tend to be introduced at different points in time, resulting in technology silos, which make it necessary for components to be built over and over again,” said Liang. “What we intend to do is to extract all those common bits and pieces, standardize and build them using Web services technology.”
This will enable the company to replace its legacy banking system piece by piece with minimum impact to end users. The IT division will be able to change the user interface, business rules, or data storage without significant impact to members or staff.
“This is like flying an airplane while changing out the engine,” said Liang. “In the long run, it will be very easy for us from the maintenance point of view, and there will be significant cost savings as well.”
Working with the business
Liang and Church agree that the key challenge in implementing Web services is not around the technology itself, which is really quite simple to execute; rather it is around getting IT and business people to think differently about their processes and systems.
For Vancity’s IT division, Web services meant a change in mindset. Staff were forced to think not of each system independently, but as a collection of business functions.
“Probably our biggest learning, as we matured in our use of the technology, was the way that we interact with our internal customers,” said Church. “In the past, they would request functionality specific to a system. We’ve educated them so that they now tell us about the business problem they’re trying to solve. We’re like a construction person with a toolbox. We have a lot of tools that enable us to build the solution. Just ask us what it is you’d like to solve and we’ll solve it.”
Of course not every type of functionality is appropriate for Web services, and Vancity’s IT division had to figure out where to employ it. “There wasn’t a lot of guidance initially, but as we’ve gained more experience it’s become more clear when it’s appropriate and when it’s not,” said Church.
The company started by applying the concept that each system has a clearly defined set of responsibilities; no system will be changed to perform activities for which it was not originally designed. This allows the business to think about processes they wish to have solved, and leaves technology staff to think about solutions.
The most important thing to keep in mind, advised Church, is that there is an overhead associated with Web services, and that overhead has an acceptable payback if the functionality is going to be reused. If it’s not going to be reused, don’t spend the energy required to enable the integration effort happen.
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