Definitely Not Old-SchoolBy Alan Joch
A leading university bets on service-oriented architecture to tame IT complexity, streamline business processes, and improve services for its users.
When Betty Brugger ticks off her top challenges, the list matches that of any corporate IT manager: manage costs more effectively, better satisfy demanding users, strengthen LAN and WAN security, modernize legacy applications, and optimize business processes—all while serving the organization's emerging global strategy.
Except that Brugger doesn't manage technology for a big corporation; she's the director of information technology, management systems, at Northwestern University. The challenges of higher education add a layer of difficulty to the job, she says. "The existence of many somewhat autonomous schools within the university creates a very complex environment for those of us in IT," she says. "If you chart our collection of disparate systems in terms of how they interface with each other, it looks like a huge spider web."
To cope, Brugger and her staff are embracing a service-oriented architecture (SOA) to a greater degree than most of Northwestern's higher-education counterparts. SOA's ability to string multiple Web services together into nimble applications to address changing business needs quickly is just one attraction. Brugger says that Oracle SOA Suite and its Oracle BPEL Process Manager—software they have started to implement incrementally, beginning with Oracle's PeopleSoft Financials installations—will let Northwestern streamline its business processes, tame IT complexity, and ultimately improve services for end users. "We want to get real-time data to our people, and we're using Oracle SOA Suite to do that," Brugger says.
Power to End Users
Oracle SOA Suite—with its BPEL engine, a Web services registry, and Enterprise Service Bus—is only part of Northwestern's SOA strategy. The university is also taking advantage of the prebuilt Web services available with PeopleSoft Financials 8.9, which the school is now implementing to replace its outdated legacy financial application. "For the highly used transactions that are more end-user-facing, we wanted something friendlier," Brugger says.
"In a lot of ways, technologies such as SOA are catching up to the way universities do business," notes Theo Bosnak, senior director of Oracle Higher Education. "SOA offers a way to break down the silos of separate systems by separating those processes into manageable components to support unique ways of doing business and supporting students. Not only does this apply to financial processes, but it is also key to enabling schools to improve recruiting, admissions, records, and other student-related processes."
These advantages are particularly important for organizations that face the IT complexities of higher education, according to Nicole Engelbert, lead analyst for education and vertical markets technology for market research and advisory services firm Datamonitor. "Under an SOA approach, institutions can modify and tailor their processes in much more flexible and cost-effective ways," she says. "The fundamental value of SOA lies in its ability to let institutional processes drive technology usage, as opposed to the technology solutions themselves dictating what the institution can do."
She adds that organizations benefit from Oracle's complete technology offerings, ranging from Oracle SOA Suite to related middleware, applications, and the database. "Having a partner such as Oracle to put it all together into a coherent whole and start the institution down the path of using SOA is a great way to begin," she says.
Northwestern's Brugger agrees. She evaluated several SOA vendors and concluded that the comprehensiveness of Oracle's technologies was unique. "We could have bought one component from here and one from there, but they wouldn't have worked as well together," she says.
Prebuilt Services Speed SOA Results
Oracle provides applications such as PeopleSoft Financials with a wide range of prebuilt Web services, which, when paired with the BPEL engine, enable organizations to configure processes that are unique to their enterprise. The PeopleSoft applications also include development capabilities to enable organizations to create their own Web services. "There are some Web services that we can take advantage of out of the box, and if we want to develop additional services in the future, we can use the platform for that as well," says Harry Samuels, Northwestern's applications systems manager responsible for the SOA implementation.
Northwestern is taking advantage of PeopleSoft Financials' SOA savvy in its widely used Expense Journals application. SOA support means that Northwestern can build end-user applications that are easier for students and staff to use. "By pushing capabilities out to users, we'll have better data integrity, put more power into their hands, and eliminate a lot of bureaucracy," Brugger says.
For example, in the old system, stacks of paper funneled throughout the procurement workflow for ordering, approving, and paying for supplies. The SOA-based alternative creates more-efficient electronic workflows that eliminate this paper-based pain, Brugger says. "Self-service brings us more into the modern age and in line with our other enterprise systems," she adds.
The SOA capabilities will tie together the financials system with the school's PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solutions, Northwestern's student management system, as well as a Peoplesoft Enterprise Human Capital Management (HCM) system and a new proposals tracking system. Architecturally, each of Northwestern's enterprise systems is tightly integrated and runs on an Oracle database. "For example," Brugger says, "Campus Solutions includes functions for financial aid, student financials, student records, registration, transcriptions, and admissions. Each one of those areas is complex in itself, and the same is true for the HCM and core financials."
Northwestern decided to go with Oracle for applications and middleware because of the functionality the full stack offered, the university's experience with Oracle Database, and Oracle's commitment to upgrades. "We looked at the marketplace when we first got into the architecture," Brugger says. "When we looked at Oracle Fusion and Oracle Fusion Middleware—and looked at their future—we thought that that would be the best way to go. Oracle is investing in middleware and applications, and that's a big deal. We didn't see the other vendors as having a total offering as much as Oracle has. Oracle has the whole package."
Real-Time Data Thrives
Right now Northwestern has implemented only the first part of its overall SOA plan. Ultimately the IT team plans to link systems across departments to achieve faster and more-real-time processing. They expect to improve the cross-system workflow for new employees, which entails a wide range of approvals across departments for salary authorizations as well as access to networks and business applications. Now this can be a slow process. "Today, we use HR and our student system as our systems of record, so we have to wait until people are hired before we can provision them and give them a network ID," Brugger says.
The current process relies on nightly batch uploads to the databases. "If we can do a Web service for this workflow, we're attaching to one system and sending data over to another, transaction by transaction, rather than batching the data at night. So we could get real-time access or real-time information or real-time provisioning, if that's what we're doing with the BPEL workflow," Brugger says. "I won't have to wait a couple of days before all these databases are populated to give new employees all the rights and access privileges they need."
Brugger will judge the success of the SOA effort according to what she calls "the illusion of simplicity it creates for end users"—the staff and students who will take advantage of new, real-time applications without concerning themselves with the complexities of the back-end systems that make it all possible. "We gauge the value by how it streamlines business processes and satisfies the users," Brugger says.
In addition to saving time and increasing user satisfaction, an SOA strategy can also save money. Maintenance cost reductions are another benefit for SOA strategies such as Northwestern's, Oracle's Bosnak says. Whether organizations rely on prebuilt Web services or mix them with their own custom services, SOA standards ensure that the resulting processes will continue to work even if vendors alter the underlying applications code. "You won't have to go in and change those extensions you wrote. They'll still connect to that underlying process through this SOA architecture," he says. "This means you're reducing the overall costs of maintaining your systems, which is a huge challenge for universities, because of the IT complexity."
If universities can save money and take inefficiency out of their systems, "the cost savings will add up," Bosnak says. "In turn, IT professionals can spend more time on areas that are more mission-critical to the organization than just maintaining existing systems."
Alan Joch (email@example.com) is a technology writer based in New England who specializes in enterprise, Web, and high-performance-computing applications.