Welcome back to our monthly column on service-oriented architecture (SOA). In our previous discussions, we have looked at SOA at a high level - what SOA is and what it isn't - and we have explored the business benefits of SOA, This month, I want to illustrate some of these points with a real-world customer example: AirNet Systems, an innovative company based in Columbus, Ohio.

AirNet provides air transportation services for small package shippers and banking customers, and is the leading transporter of canceled checks and related information in the U.S. Operating a fleet of 120 aircraft flying 455,000 mile a week to meet 2,200 such deadlines each day, AirNet's business model is to provide time-critical customized service for each client, including the flexibility to allow late pick-ups and early deliveries. Such an operation, as you can imagine, relies heavily on the marriage of business processes and technology to function.

What Problems did AirNet Address?

Let's start by looking at some of the IT challenges that were affecting AirNet's business:

  • Silos of Information: Like a lot of other companies, the technologies that powered AirNet's business had been developed and maintained department by department. IT staff had built individual silos of data and software for each task, often duplicating work from one project to the next. This made their applications costly to maintain and even costlier to modify, and limited the company's flexibility
  • Fragmented Business Processes: AirNet's profitability and competitiveness depended on their adept management of key business processes which, in turn, were dependent on these silod applications. As a result, their visibility into shipment tracking was limited, and the most optimal combination of routes, schedules, package types and aircraft was not always chosen, leading to inefficiencies, customer service issues and lost opportunities
  • Skills Inefficiency: The systems that manage flight scheduling, price quotes and other key applications were built independently at different times in different environments and with differing skill sets. This inherently limited the degree of re-use possible from one project to the next, placed additional burden on limited IT staff and, ultimately, restricted IT's ability to respond to the business

I'm sure these are challenges familiar to many of you and are by no means restricted to the particular business model that AirNet operates. Many of these challenges stem from an IT infrastructure that has evolved over time in an unplanned, unintegrated manner, inevitably increasing complexity and making it harder to make changes

How Does SOA Address These Problems?

To reiterate something I mentioned in an earlier column, SOA should not be seen as a "magic bullet" or a technology fix. It is more of an approach, a way of designing applications as a collection of discrete services that can be linked together in new ways, encouraging the re-use of an existing service instead of writing new logic. This approach allows more rapid response to change compared with writing a new piece of logic from scratch. It also facilitates a simpler, less silod IT infrastructure, allows existing IT staff to be more effective and reduces project overhead time and cost.

AirNet's IT goals were to accelerate time to market, reduce the cost of managing multiple different systems and simplify application development. As we can see from the aforementioned challenges, a SOA approach would be a good basis for making progress against these goals. By breaking down their applications into discrete units of logic or services, the burden of maintenance and modification becomes much lower; the amount of re-use increases and projects can be delivered faster and cheaper. Application development becomes more efficient as less of the logic has to be built from scratch, instead being assembled from preexisting services or best practices. As more and more applications are built using the SOA approach, the overhead of time and cost in maintaining and managing systems progressively decreases.

In AirNet's case, there was another aspect they regarded as key to the success of their IT plan. By deploying their service-oriented architecture on a common underlying IT infrastructure or platform, they could share the same business logic and data as services within a single unified environment, thereby greatly simplifying the IT landscape and accelerating any savings that would accrue. Increasingly, companies are looking for ways to simplify their IT infrastructure by using a platform approach that preintegrates a lot of the functionality that previously was available only in separate components - fewer moving parts to integrate and maintain means higher IT productivity

How Did AirNet Implement Their SOA?

As we have discussed in previous columns, there is nothing inherently new about the concept of a SOA - what is new is the ability to deploy a SOA using widely supported industry standards in a unified environment that greatly simplifies the task. One of the early decisions that AirNet made was to choose an integrated platform as the foundation of the new IT infrastructure. This meant that whatever effort they put into building new functionality or applications was inherently service oriented, conformed to a best-practice "blueprint" and leveraged their existing investment in a more productive manner than before.

The first application AirNet built was a Web-based rate engine for their call center, using rules-based intelligence to calculate price quotes based on shipment origin, destination, size and weight. When a call center agent or a customer requests a quote, the application accesses the appropriate data from back-end systems and delivers it via the Web. This rate engine was built in seven months by a team of only two developers, an extremely aggressive rollout schedule for an application of such strategic importance.

The developers - who had limited Web services experience - were able to become productive in just a couple of weeks using a SOA approach instead of traditional development methodologies. By building a user interface and a set of Web services to expose the data rather than a full monolithic application, being able to rapidly iterate and test services independently, and by having the platform take care of all the traditional underlying J2EE plumbing and other overhead, they achieved a breakthrough in developer productivity.

The second application, a flight scheduling system, was built by one person in only two weeks, illustrating the compounding effect of re-use mentioned earlier. By not having to reinvent the wheel for services that were already written, such as user authorization, they were able to shorten both their development and test times and simply focus on the new functionality required for that system. All that was required was to develop a presentation layer and a set of data services that accessed and exposed flight schedule information, as opposed to a full-blown independent application that would have added to the IT maintenance burden.

AirNet also found they could extend the flexibility of this approach in other ways. For instance, by installing PCs in their high-volume shippers' own delivery rooms and interoperating with a Microsoft .Net client via standard Web services, AirNet was able to streamline interaction between their shippers and its order-entry systems, reduce manual errors, gain better visibility into the status of shipments and, ultimately, improve its customer relations by leveraging its IT investments.

What Has AirNet Learned from Using SOA?

AirNet's experience with building and deploying these applications demonstrated the winning combination of taking a strategic approach to IT infrastructure and incorporating SOA principles. The seemingly simple shift of mind-set from building monolithic applications to deploying sets of standard services can produce tremendous benefits to the business if it is treated as part of an overall infrastructure plan. It also has important implications for the IT organization, for example, for the systems architects who become critically important to the success of the plan.

AirNet's own systems architect, Tim Brown, puts it this way, "We're counting on our SOA infrastructure to be a fundamental enabler of our future success. It will allow us to bring innovative services to market rapidly while controlling IT costs and increasing productivity so that our modest staff can do the work of a much larger team. And our new-found flexibility means that we'll be able to interact with customers electronically who choose to utilize communication technologies that may not even be on the drawing board yet."

How Can SOA Help You?

As you will have noted throughout these columns, SOA is a more of a journey than a destination. Nobody has the luxury of wiping the slate clean with their IT infrastructure - that would be impractical from a cost, risk and operational standpoint. However, you can start modestly by having your development teams adopt the mind-set of re-use, getting them to think about packaging new functionality as standards-based services that can help the next project rather than deploying traditional monolithic code. You can augment that by "wrapping" existing legacy applications with standards-based interfaces so that they can participate in the SOA picture, gradually replacing their functionality over time as investment and risk allows. And when you have established the right IT foundation, you can think about extending the benefits outside to trading partners and customers or automate other key business processes for further efficiency.

If you have a Web-services oriented development environment as AirNet chose, all the better. And if you are thinking about using an integrated platform as the basis of your IT infrastructure, again all the better. You can, however, still start the SOA journey without these things; it may just take a little longer to see the results. By matching the level of IT risk and commitment with incremental business benefit in this way, you do not have to "bet the farm" on SOA. You can still run a day-to-day operation while building the strategic IT foundation for the future and putting in place a best-practice SOA approach. The important thing is to start the journey.

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