Move to SOA can be rewarding for companies, users say

Working through the thorny problems of SOA

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, 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 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, 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 Californian 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.

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.

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