IT monitoring with a twist

Before law firm Hogan & Hartson can sign up a new client, it has to make sure the addition won't create any conflicts of interest with its current business. An examination can turn up dozens of potential conflicts that typically require attorney attention.

"Among the folks who have to respond to these conflicts issues are our senior partners -- some of the most time-pressed, mobile and expensive personnel," says Bill Gregory, CIO at the Washington, D.C., firm. "We can't proceed until they comment."

To speed up the business-intake process, Gregory rolled out workflow and business-process monitoring software from Metastorm and gave the attorneys wireless BlackBerries from Research In Motion to make sending and receiving comments easier for them. Built-in alerts remind attorneys and notify conflicts staff if an RFC has gone unanswered for a certain period of time.

When a new business gets the go-ahead, the Metastorm software is designed to provide immediate notice to various internal teams so they can prepare resources such as technical or administrative support. "In the past, there wasn't an easy way to dip into a bunch of paper file folders and get that information out to the proper parties right away," Gregory says. A few days make a big difference when trying to line up appropriate project resources, he says.

At Hogan & Hartson, the Metastorm software watches for bottlenecks -- but not the kind Gregory is used to hearing about as CIO. Instead of watching for device failures or network slowdowns, the software is watching for lapses in the execution of a business process.

Business-activity monitoring (BAM) is gaining ground among early adopters who want to more quickly become aware of and respond to changing business conditions. The technology provides the business equivalent of an e-mail notifying an airline passenger of a flight delay or a text message alerting an eBay customer he's been outbid.

BAM technology extracts operational data from multiple transaction systems, melds it, and compares it to historical data. Correlating all these sources helps companies assess the business implications, based on historical precedent, of events in real time. The sooner a company becomes aware of a problem -- an inventory shortage, sales forecasting discrepancy, or increase in fraudulent transactions, for example -- the sooner it can take corrective action to avert business-threatening conditions.

BAM also includes ongoing reporting capabilities. At Hogan & Hartson, replacing what were ad hoc paper-based methods with clear, auditable steps not only speeds the business intake process but also provides the firm with metrics such as how long it takes each matter to clear the conflicts investigation stage, how many matters are pending and how much potential business is turned away because of insurmountable conflicts.

"Every law firm runs into situations where it can't take on a piece of work because of insurmountable conflicts. In the past, we didn't have good insight into what those occasions were," Gregory says.

Bill Gassman, a principal analyst at Gartner, likens BAM to network and systems management - with a twist. What makes BAM more complex than traditional IT monitoring is that more varied types of events are gathered and analyzed, he says.

Rules in the IT world largely are about device and performance thresholds. Rules in the BAM realm are about correlating system and transactional events, such as the issuance of a purchase order, and then putting a predictive spin on the implications of those events. That's much harder for a system to do -- for example, deducing from a broken-down truck that goods might not ship on time and that the late delivery might lead to a potential fine, Gassman says.

Getting started

A range of vendors offer BAM tools, including business process management players such as Fuego and Metastorm; integration vendors such as Tibco Software and SeeBeyond; infrastructure platform vendors such as BEA Systems, IBM and Oracle; and business-monitoring specialists such as Celequest.

The software today typically runs on its own server and ties into business applications via application-integration middleware (or directly in the absence of a message broker infrastructure) to draw transactional data. It typically hooks into data warehouses for access to historical business information.

The technology isn't extremely hard to get up and running, but using it effectively can be, Gassman says. "The real challenge is in doing something valuable with the alerts," he says.

Appropriate alerting depends on careful configuration of company-specific process rules and notification protocols. "There's no magic behind [BAM alerts]. You have to define your business models and business rules, and there's coding involved to make that happen," says Angela Venuk, director of product development at GTESS.

GTESS, a medical claims processing outsourcer, uses Fuego software to keep tabs on its operations. The software sends alerts when handling exceptions such as incomplete claims information could potentially put the company in danger of not meeting a service-level agreement. By doing more proactive analysis of process data, as opposed to post-processing audits, GTESS can resolve problems earlier and reduce wasted processing time, she says.

One benefit of Fuego's business-process management platform is reusability, Venuk says. For example, GTESS can make use of a current time-out scenario -- the steps to take if a transaction is taking too long -- in multiple processes. "We can tweak it from one process to the next," she says.

At CenterPoint Energy, BAM software helps IT manager Mary Rich mask the complexity of an enormous application-integration effort and feed relevant business diagnostics to departments in the energy delivery company.

CenterPoint rolled out software from SeeBeyond for its application integration work and uses the same platform for BAM. The combination lets Rich retain one team to support the entire rollout. "It makes operating costs a lot cheaper," she says.

With the BAM tools, CenterPoint delivers customized diagnostic dashboards to users in different departments such as revenue, business-process management, billing and credit. The handoff takes the load of tracking each transaction failure off of the IT team. At a company that processes 500,000 transactions per day, the burden lifted is huge, Rich says.

She advises IT executives considering BAM to put in the time upfront to figure out what kind of monitoring will most benefit users. "Ask whoever is going to get the data, 'What is your biggest problem? What will you do when you get data from us?'" Rich says. Then make sure the project includes the necessary data extraction and retention resources -- such as a proper database design. "Don't wait until the end to figure out how you're going to capture and store that information," she says.

And don't get too alert happy, GTESS' Venuk adds. "It can become overwhelming and non-effective if people are getting alerted too often."

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