The service-oriented architecture, or SOA, has become a lucrative reality for two quite different companies that both understand the distinction between mere Web services technology and a more general services model of IT.
Con-Way Transportation Services Inc. is a $2.6 billion transportation and logistics company based in Ann Arbor, Mich. The companys focus on “less-than-truckload” traffic, with any given truck carrying loads for multiple customers between multiple pairs of endpoints, puts a premium on rapid development of refined logistics and customer-contact applications.
“We built an integration bus,” said Praveen Sharabu, the companys director of enterprise architecture, “where we could publish events, and systems were free to use that information.”
Con-Way didnt wait for Web services to emerge before seeking new ways to meet its customers demands and to leverage the potential of XML. “Our customers started saying, Were dealing with a lot of paper, and we want to know where our shipments are at any given time—we want to interact with your systems,” said Sharabu. “We started offering those things through XML, through our Web site, so that customers could send and receive information. Without putting the new Web services standards into play, we were still offering services.”
Sharabu described the companys evolving event-based model of a shipments life cycle: “From a back-office perspective, all of the business units need to get down to accounts payable and such. Plugging that into the system becomes very easy—it doesnt matter what tool, what technology.”
That said, Sharabu continued, the company has evolved into what he called “a Java shop,” with plans to take its vision of services potential and leverage that with maturing Web services tools.
“Where we want to go in the next iteration is to experiment with [IBMs] WebSphere and see if we can expose methods as Web services, use SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] and generate WSDL [Web Services Description Language],” he said. Sharabu said he hopes that the result will be more rapid time to market for future versions of Con-Way applications.
Whats still to come, Sharabu said, is a genuine catalog of services—which is the goal, but, in his view, not yet the reality, of UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration). “The semantics arent there,” Sharabu said. “The word location could mean several different things; coming up with a common definition is very important.”
Whats essential, he said, is not to get too focused on technical minutiae. “Always look at what your customer needs and offer that,” he said.
The SOA payback has also been substantial for The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, based in New York. “Productivity was the driver,” said Jaime Sguerra, Guardians second vice president and chief architect. “We had a very silo type of organization. [There was] not much leverage in the investments that the company made in each area; each tended to use its own languages—there wasnt very much consistency.”
Sguerra brought a field marshals broad perspective to this battlefield.
“We have built an enterprise architecture, essentially three frameworks that shield developers from learning component-specific interfaces or languages,” he said. The company has structured these in terms of application development, enterprise security and enterprise service management.
Sguerra described a high degree of technology independence thats resulted from this substantial investment. The approach, he said, “leverages industry standards: SOAP, WSDL, XML. … The architecture doesnt mandate that we go through Web services, but it allows them where we can pay the price in performance.”
In addition to acknowledging the performance overheads of Web services, Sguerra alluded to past security concerns. But, he said, thanks to multivendor collaboration, “thats better now.”
Sguerra set the bar high for his organization by committing to a measurable goal. “We put a strong business case together, approved by the board and CEO, suggesting that wed save 30 percent of our development costs going forward,” he said. “It took 28 months—we finished in the first quarter of last year—and, since then, weve added more than 20 applications and we have seen the savings that we proposed.”
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at [email protected].
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