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SOA implementation evolves from open source to Oracle SOA suite

Though SOA is something you do, rather than buy, this CIO found the best approach was to go shopping and solve the problem at the database layer.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) implementations are based on a set of design principles -- an architectural approach -- with the admirable aim of delivering services and infrastructure functions common to a company's many business applications. The learning curve can be steep. Companies accustomed to developing and consuming applications in silos need to start thinking horizontally. IT and the business need to identify the capabilities that really matter so that the services will not only be reused but also bring value by reuse. SOA is something you do, not something you buy, or so say most SOA experts.

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But even IT organizations that have put in the hard work of "doing SOA" may find they eventually need to go shopping if a SOA implementation is to succeed in changing the way their organizations operate.

Whether to buy or reconfigure depends on what you already possess in the way of software, according to Gartner Inc. analyst W. Roy Schulte.

"In a number of cases, a company doesn't have to pay anything, in software licenses at least, to do SOA. They already own the licenses to enough basic middleware (application servers, development tools) to do the SOA they need," said Schulte, vice president and distinguished analyst, application architecture and middleware, at the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy.

"SOA only starts to cost more in software licenses if you have a very old software infrastructure or if you are getting into high-volume SOA with lots of services, especially on heterogeneous platforms. That's when you start to need ESBs [enterprise service buses], registry/repository tools and governance tools, and so on."

That was the case for CIO Erin Griffin, whose recent foray into SOA architecture progressed from using SOA principles to build open source-based Web services to the purchase of Oracle Corp.'s SOA Suite to effect business transformation.

Griffin is CIO at the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Screen Actors Guild, the union representing 125,000 actors. Information must flow in and out of the organization to many entities. Entertainment companies use SAG's "work clearance" service to determine whether an actor is eligible for working under a SAG contract. Actors receive residuals from past work through SAG. Various constituents use the organization's online casting program.

Two common barriers to entry for doing SOA
There are many ways to fail at SOA, experts like to say. Reusable SOA services assume that standard data and process models have been adopted across the portfolio. Here are two barriers:

Data management is inadequate: "If departments and functional domains don't have agreement on their data, their metadata and the right sort of data, this is doing to hamper their efforts," said Burton Group Inc. analyst Richard Watson. For example, if two departments can't agree on the definition of a customer, this is going to cause problems when it comes to defining the service interfaces. "One of the things I see is that there is inadequate support in the tools and platforms for promoting data management."

Inadequate process modeling: To succeed with SOA, architects need to know where the services will fit into their business processes. "There is a synergy between BPM, a management business discipline, and SOA," Watson said. "The business process models give you a map for which services you need to bring that process to life, and they also give you a way to prioritize which services to build in a top-down way." -- L.T.

SAG's initial SOA implementation efforts were very homegrown, Griffin said. "We were using Web services primarily to deliver information in and out of our systems. And we used these Web services to perform some fairly mission-critical functions," including work clearance, she said.

Griffin's IT team used the LAMP stack to build and deploy the services. LAMP is an open source Web development platform based on Linux. The services used Apache as the Web server, MySQL as the relational database management system and PHP as the object-oriented scripting language.

Griffin decided it would be worth taking a deeper look at the organization's business processes and how they might benefit from a full architecture based on SOA. SAG uses Oracle Corp.'s E-Business Suite of applications for ERP. Griffin took advantage of Oracle's free consulting Insight Program to analyze one of SAG's most labor-intensive business processes, residuals processing, which handles about 2 million paper checks annually.

"It is a real pain point for us," Griffin said. Employees hand-enter data into SAG's system from the paper checks, as well as from the paper batch statements that come with the checks; they print individual statements for members, collate the checks and statements by hand and put these documents in the mail. "It's horrendous," she said. She also asked Oracle to look at SAG's online casting program.

"These were two industry-wide information exchange processes where we thought that we could get some real energy using SOA," she said. "We literally just wrapped up the deployment and training for the implementation of Oracle's SOA Suite, a set of products that will allow you to very easily generate and consume Web services. It delivers an enterprise service bus, BPEL process language, a repository and that sort of tools. We are jumping with both feet!"

Oracle, open source and Microsoft, oh my!

Before leaping into a SOA implementation, however, Griffin and her team took a hard look at their IT environment.

"When we came to a point where we realized we wanted to really shift our focus and put a lot more effort into a SOA implementation, we needed to really look at where our strengths lay," she said.

SAG was heavily invested in Oracle's E-Business Suite, which utilizes Oracle's relational database management technology. The Web services were Java-focused. And the organization was in the midst of expanding its "plain vanilla" Windows Exchange and server environment to include SharePoint, a major expansion.

"We were starting to fracture, to be honest," Griffin said. "And there was a big organization problem staring us in the face."

The organization's ERP system was a highly customized version of Oracle's E-business Suite that was a version or so behind Oracle's Web-oriented, Java-based Fusion roadmap. Each upgrade had been more difficult than the previous one, due to the customization. In addition, SAG had developed its own mission-critical custom applications. "We were at the point where things are going to break," she said.

"All of the Oracle business logic was in packages in the database," she said, "and while Oracle has moved away from that over time, all our development was done that way. So we don't have the business rules layer extracted."

"It beats ripping out and rebuilding"

The Oracle SOA solution came to look like the logical choice for getting those business processes out of the database packages and ready to be delivered via the Java forms Oracle was moving to.

Griffin pegs the investment at $250,000, with more dollars to come. "It beats ripping out and rebuilding," she said, an important consideration in a year when the IT staff was cut by 25%.

For the SOA implementation, she tasked a team of 10 IT people, including two forms developers, two PL/SQL people, a Java developer, straight programmers and a quality assurance specialist. They have just finished a three-week training in deploying the software, an important component of which was learning Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), said SAG's chief enterprise architect, Kousha Vaziri. "We are in the earliest stages," he cautioned, but optimism is high that the Oracle stack will allow them to simplify processes to "get the best out of SOA."

Griffin agreed. Despite some initial jitters, given the "huge undertaking" that SOA represents, she said the team sees the technical challenge as a "bit of a gift."

And open source?

"We could have flipped the whole thing on its head and taken the open source approach, and there are certainly other systems and tools out there to support that development," Griffin said.

"But what we found is that the business problem was so much in the database that there is where we needed to solve it," she said. "It didn't make sense to be service-focused, if we couldn't start to extract our business processes, build an enterprise service bus to exchange the processes and define them with better business rules -- all that goes along with doing this whole SOA thing."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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