SOA and BPM: A mutually beneficial partnership

SOA and BPM offer similar benefits to an IT organization -- streamlined processes, quicker response to changing business requirements and increased return on investment. So how can these two work in harmony to achieve additional benefits for an IT organization?

More companies are recognizing that the intersection of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM) offers opportunities to streamline technology and package it in exciting new ways.

A successful BPM engagement requires the IT department to work collaboratively with the appropriate stakeholders to understand what the business is trying to accomplish, said Ethan Smith, partner and BPM practice lead at BusinessEdge Solutions Inc., a strategy and technology consulting firm in East Brunswick, N.J. "Somebody has to be the champion here of the business architecture and the system architecture," Smith says. "But it gets overlooked quite frequently."

The first step is to conduct what Smith calls a business process analysis to identify areas where SOA can be used effectively. In the insurance industry, the first step in nearly any process is to verify the eligibility of the caller or computer user. That's an area where SOA methodology works well, creating a program used by many systems to perform that one task.

"I think everyone buys into [SOA]," Smith said. "Now, the question becomes how to cost-effectively deliver on it, not just to understand how it makes sense from a conceptual perspective but how to make it work, and that's where BPM comes in."

Leveraging SOA and BPM efficiencies

Identifying the steps in key business processes allows a company to uncover critical components and areas where the same information is used across business channels. Then a company can leverage SOA to bring efficiencies in delivering common and vital information.

"The intersection of SOA and BPM fundamentally makes sense, but it's still difficult to bring together because of cultures, budgets and organizational constraints," Smith said. "You get out what you put into it. It's relatively easy to plan; the real challenge is bringing the right people to the table."

SOA/BPM deployments work best in organizations where the IT department has reached out beyond departmental lines to become an integral part of the business, agreed Fred Dillman, CTO at Unisys Corp., the global technology services and solutions company based in Blue Bell, Pa. That important change has occurred over the past two years as the view of SOA has evolved from being merely a tool to a dynamic way to transform business processes.

Case study

As TicketsNow was working toward the mid-July launch of its redesigned Web site, which features increased functionality, IT staff members used BPM methodology to determine areas where the same information could be leveraged in different applications on the Web site and among partner companies, said Frank Giannantonio, CTO at the online ticket reseller. "The key in SOA is to provide that information in a way that serves your process needs," Giannantonio said.

For example, the Crystal Lake, Ill.-based company allows brokers to repackage the information on the TicketsNow site for their own Web sites. The company's EventInventory division also sells software to brokers to manage back-office functions. The same piece of information could be used in the company's new loyalty program, with its enterprise data warehouse or in its content management system.

Before relaunching the TicketsNow site, the IT department spent six weeks on quality assurance and stress testing before the enhancements went live, Giannantonio said. "We didn't have any big surprises," he said. "There were some fixes, but none of them were customer-facing."

Business process changes

Interest in BPM was high in the late 1980s, Dillman said, but it declined amid a realization that changes were difficult to make. Process improvements that seemed to work on paper wreaked havoc among organizations when they were implemented. The rise of SOA allows those business process changes to be made and thoroughly tested before being used on a wider scale. It also allows smaller changes to be made in a cost-effective manner, Dillman said.

The planning process is crucial, Giannantonio said, using the architectural blueprint developed through BPM to determine the areas where SOA has the greatest chance of success. "SOA should be a key step in every IT deployment because it's more cost-effective in the long run," Giannantonio said. "It can be a challenge with 15- or 20-year-old legacy systems that work perfectly well, but a compelling business case can be made if you can show the cost of supporting legacy systems versus new technology."

Matt Bolch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. He can be reached at mbolch@mindspring.com.

This was first published in October 2006
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