Starwood nears end of SOA revamp

Every major enterprise applications vendor has hopped on the SOA (services-oriented architecture) bandwagon and extolled the virtues of using standards-compliant software to expose business processes as Web services, reducing the pain of integrating heterogeneous systems. But for customers, implementing an SOA environment in their own data centres can be a complex and lengthy process. One chief technology officer nearing the end of a five-year SOA project says the results, though a long time coming, are worth it.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. CTO Tom Conophy joined the White Plains, N.Y., hotel company in 2000. Soon after, at the start of 2001, the company embarked on an ambitious architectural overhaul it dubbed Fusion. “It laid down the foundation of an SOA,” Conophy said.

Starwood operates more than 700 hotel properties worldwide through brands such as W, Sheraton and Westin. Fusion’s goal is to unite the company’s far-flung holdings on one flexible framework that can scale as needed to handle the traffic spikes and massive server loads that come with the hospitality business. Starwood expects to approach US$1 billion in bookings this year through its own branded Web sites, with significant additional traffic volume hitting its reservation system from partner Web sites like Orbitz LLC and LP.

Conophy has been gradually moving pieces of Starwood’s business over to the new architecture; some processes have been in production on the Fusion framework for two years. Ultimately, he expects to have about 150 services in place running processes underlying operations such as Starwood’s loyalty programs, meeting planning and reservation recording. But the big milestone is finally approaching: Early next year, Starwood will have Fusion essentially complete and will begin switching hotels over to the new reservation system.

To illustrate the possibilities of such a component-based system, Conophy cites a recent project linking Starwood’s customer profile records with the CRM (customer relationship management) system of an Orlando, Fla.-based timeshare business the company operates.

“In a classic model, it would have been a big task to integrate these environments,” he said. “But we just had to push our SOAP XML format to the developers in Orlando. Literally, within 24 hours the systems were integrated. That’s the perfect example of why SOA makes a lot of sense.”

To build its system, Starwood is relying on an assortment of third-party software, the kind of best-of-breed approach that’s fallen out of favour as companies wrestle with integration challenges. Starwood runs middleware from JBoss Inc. and IBM Corp.’s WebSphere line, an Oracle Corp. database, its own custom CRM software, and Unica Corp.’s marketing analytics tools, among others.

Starwood recently announced its selection of Actional Corp.’s Looking Glass and SOAPstation software for managing data flow within its SOA. Conophy also evaluated products from SOA Software Inc. and AmberPoint Inc., but went with Actional after pilot tests showed lower latency and greater ease-of-use with its software.

Conophy is unfazed about getting all that software to play nicely together. “The challenges of integration are becoming simpler to deal with now,” he said. “The bigger challenge is understanding the workflow and what you want to do. The days of ‘how do I get the data out of your system’ — those arguments are over.”

As Starwood approaches the end of its long SOA rollout, Conophy is counting down the days until it can officially chuck out its big-iron reminder of computing eras past. “We’ll be completing the process from a quality-assurance standpoint in Q4, and in Q1 we start cutting over the hotels,” he said. “By this time next year, my mainframe will be very idle. In September, we’ll be having a sledgehammer party in the parking lot.”

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