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SOA implementation gets mother of all tests

An SOA application that had just gone live came to the rescue on a dark and stormy night, when 52,000 Austin Energy customers lost power.

The first service-oriented architecture (SOA) implementation for Austin Energy turned out to be a true shock test when, within 24 hours of going live, 52,000 customers of the municipal power company in Austin, Texas, temporarily lost their electric service courtesy of Mother Nature.

After months of planning, architecting, training, developing and more conventional testing, Austin Energy's first SOA implementation, a composite customer service application, went live on May 3 of this year, according to Andres Carvallo, CIO of Austin Energy. On May 4, severe thunderstorms with 70 mph winds generated small tornados that knocked down trees and power lines in Austin.

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"That storm generated an outage for 52,000 customers," the CIO recalled.

The new SOA-based customer service system, specifically designed to speed the time it takes for customer service reps to handle customers calling to report power outages, could not have come online at a more opportune time.

"The old system had a limitation of being able to process 4,000 work orders a day," he said. "The new system has been tested for up to 50,000 work orders per day."

Beyond the fact that the new SOA customer service application came through Mother Nature's stress test with flying colors, it also handled it far better than would have been the case with the legacy Cold Fusion-based application it replaced, Carvallo said.

Customers, who just two days previous would have had to wait an average of five minutes for the legacy system to process their outage report, were able to complete the process in an average of two minutes with the new system, Carvallo said.

Improving call center productivity and, consequently, customer satisfaction were the two goals Carvallo had when his team of 21 developers began planning their initial SOA implementation last fall. While the goal is to eventually replace more than 70 legacy systems with SOA applications, Carvallo followed the advice to begin incrementally with a small project. The customer service implementation is a composite application with five Web services designed to handle actions such as verifying the customer location and generating a work order to repair the outage.

Moving into the SOA world required not only a new way of thinking about application development, but also a complete updating of the programming skills for the development team. Carvallo had determined that the new SOA applications would be written in Java using IBM's WebSphere and Rational tools, but the developers at Austin Energy were experienced in working with Cold Fusion and Visual Basic. To transform his 21 developers into Java coders, Carvallo sent them to an IBM facility in Austin for 60 days of Java training.

With no previous experience designing SOA applications, the CIO brought in architects from IBM Services to do the architecture and oversee the development. However, the actual coding was done by his 21 newly minted Java programmers. The combination of outside consultants and in-house coders took only six months from concept to implementation and produced the application that rode out the storm on May 4.

This was particularly gratifying to Carvallo because it disproved the naysayers who told him it couldn't be done.

"A lot of the people at the beginning thought this could never happen," he recalled. "They said it will take forever. Obviously we proved that it can be done. It's not impossible to move to this world, do it right and deploy something that scales better, is more modular and achieves all the requirements on time and on budget."

One of the keys to success, Carvallo said, was that 30 percent of the project was focused on planning and the architecture. The 60 days of Java training leading to certification for the development team also paid off, he said.

Now that team is moving on to the next SOA application.

"The end goal is to have an integrated enterprise with SOA in the middle of it," Carvallo said. "We have been mapping out since last summer the key processes -- 70-plus processes -- that we want to bring into the SOA [environment] and help rationalize the infrastructure behind it. We will have the next five processes tackled in the next five months and go live with a set of new Web services and deployments and extensions of the SOA to tie to things like the financial system and the asset management system."

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