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Service-oriented architecture

When a telecommunications company renews a calling card, the process has historically involved knowledge workers in billing, customer service and several other departments within the company each updating their records, a cumbersome process for a renewal that might be very small in revenue and therefore in profitability.

Other companies have been similarly "siloed" in their processes. Some companies have tried to solve this challenge by developing Web services that use XML technology to share information. While that eliminates much of the redundancy for new customers and new services, Web services alone do not solve the problem of information that is contained in older legacy systems, such as mainframe computers.

The solution that companies are increasingly turning to in order to meet the challenge is service-oriented architecture (SOA), which connects knowledge not only to Web services, but also to an increasing number of legacy systems as it continues to evolve, says Hemant Ramachandra, managing director of BearingPoint's SOA solutions group.

"Companies don't want to spend a ton of money rebuilding technology from scratch," Ramachandra says. By using SOA, they can use the knowledge that already exists in older systems like mainframes to populate new service offerings, like a new calling card to a current customer who has other telecommunications services. With SOA, the customer's name, address and other pertinent information can be retrieved from the mainframe to populate the appropriate areas for the marketing offer and, if the offer is accepted, billing, collections, customer service and other areas within the company.

SOA has been around for a few years, but in the last year the use of it has evolved to include more systems, more companies have adopted it and it has moved from something that vendors pushed to something that buyers are actively seeking, according to Paul Hernacki, CTO for Definition 6 (defi nition6.com), an Internet consulting firm that develops collaboration and e-commerce solutions.

"Services that are reusable are easier to adopt throughout the enterprise," Hernacki explains. "In 2005, people were putting a lot of the SOA emphasis on the technology and the systems. Now they're placing the focus more on the user experience. Now the customer experience is king."

This means that companies providing technologies designed to be SOA-compliant need to work with IT people and users within organizations to ensure the technologies are functional, says Jodi Cicci, global deployment director for Software AG.

Neal Keene, VP for solutions for Thunderhead, agrees. "More and more companies are asking whether a technology is SOA-compliant," he says. "They're a little more specific about what they want."

What they want, he continues, are technologies that enable users to retrieve company information in any format from a variety of applications—for example, document management systems that can retrieve required disclosures and other compliance-related information and then present that information on a desktop, laptop or other device.

"They want systems that can easily create the content and then be able to retrieve it from other systems," Keene says. "SOA has the potential to move an enterprise forward." For example, a financial services company using an SOA architecture can enable mobile loan officers to be as effective as loan officers sitting at their desks.

But that potential depends on the system easily providing the information the user needs. Some earlier systems failed because they required the user to have too much technical knowledge, according to Keene. That meant not only technology crashes, but also underutilization of systems. "There have been a lot of horror stories about breakdowns because people were using systems that were only loosely coupled together," he says.

So the first step in adopting an SOA architecture is planning. "You need to understand what the company's goals are. Some think they can just stick systems together quickly. The amount of testing that you need to do goes up quite a bit. You have to look at how [applications] tie back to legacy systems. Sometimes it can't be done," Keene adds.

And Ramachandra cautions: "SOA is not a silver bullet."

With proper planning, however, companies can use SOA to help non-technical employees be more productive. Customer service agents in a company employing SOA, for example, can see a customer's other relationships (other accounts, past purchases, etc.) and can more effectively up-sell or cross-sell.

With the earlier focus on technology and systems, an SOA offering may have performed well technically, but if it were too complex for the user, he or she would stay with older, inefficient, redundant systems, according to Hernacki. "If it's too challenging for the user, they're less likely to use it. People inherently want something that's easy, something that's quick," he says.

A good example of the new mindset, according to Hernacki, is Microsoft Sharepoint Server, an application that enables users to search and tab through information stored throughout the enterprise. Microsoft just launched the 2007 version of the product, with user-oriented improvements over the previous version. "It was designed with the user experience in mind," Hernaki says.

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