Support for SuperheroesBy Alan Joch
Marvel Entertainment relies on Oracle to manage growth and provide seamless technology integration.
For four decades, comic book superhero Iron Man has proven himself a formidable opponent against a variety of villains. But when it comes to competing and growing in today's global economy, both heroes and villains need more than high-tech exoskeletons. That's why Marvel Entertainment, the creator of Iron Man and the owner of thousands of other familiar characters, is growing through three business divisions that keep Iron Man and his compatriots such as the Incredible Hulk competitive.
Both superheroes will jump from comic book pages to movie theaters this summer, each in a big-budget, live-action film that will be the first features arriving from Marvel's new in-house production studio. Marvel hopes the studio will add an important revenue stream to its traditional profits from publishing comic books and licensing its characters.
"There are three core components of our business," says Glenn Magala, Marvel's senior vice president and CIO. "Licensing brings in most of the revenue. That entails licensing our intellectual property to others so that they can manufacture and distribute retail products, for example. Then there's the publishing arm of our business, which consists of comic books, trade paperbacks, and hardcover books. The third component is the studio division."
Although the fate of most midsize companies doesn't hinge on battles between good and evil, almost all face challenges similar to Marvel's when it comes to pushing for business growth while simultaneously creating an integrated IT infrastructure that can support new business strategies.
Marvel's response is a consolidated set of technologies, ranging from business applications to middleware and databases from a single sourceOracle. "The business initiatives we're working on here require each of our groups to work closely together. Our business processes just can't effectively create the desired end results otherwise," says Magala. "We see a huge advantage by going with Oracle technologies because they move us toward stronger collaborations, not just in terms of the data components but also for the business processes."
Growing with Seamless Interaction
The strategy appears to be succeeding. Marvel's net income for the first nine months of 2007 climbed to US$112.2 million, or almost two and a half times higher than the same period in 2006, thanks to growth in the licensing and publishing divisions.
In addition, the Iron Man and Incredible Hulk films represent the first time Marvel will maintain full control of production profits for a film based on any of its characters. In earlier films based on such Marvel characters as Spider-Man and X-Men, the company licensed its intellectual property to major studios that produced the films.
"The biggest challenge we have is that Marvel is a very fast-moving company, so the demands on IT are significant," Magala says. "We have to find ways of streamlining business processes to wring out inefficiencies and help business managers generate alternate revenue streams."
Those goals are a common theme among all types of midsize companies, says Simon Jacobson, senior research analyst with AMR Research. The most important business drivers for this segment in the coming year include solutions for improving business efficiency, containing IT costs, and using data better throughout the organization, he says. The biggest roadblocks to these efforts are what Jacobson calls "a plethora of disparate systems" that create business silos.
"As they need to connect the different parts of their organization, companies realize that their systems don't provide the visibility into data and processes they need," he says. "Which is why we see much of the IT investment trying to get to that single version of the truth."
And that's just what has happened at Marvel. "Our lines of business didn't intersect because the systemic solutions didn't require it, but Oracle applications have basically enabled our silo-based environments to seamlessly interact with one another," Magala says. "We see a huge advantage in going with Oracle applications."
Integrating with Seamless Processing
A growing number of midsize companies are addressing their integration needs by purchasing core technologies from a single vendor, AMR Research's Jacobson says. "When everything is integrated, you're not doing a lot of custom integration yourself, which is especially important for companies with a small IT staff," he says.
For Marvel, vendor consolidation also means its IT staff doesn't have to support several technologies across each of the business divisions. "I put a lot of value on the connectivity and the seamless processing between the application and the back-end technologies," Magala says. "That's a big advantage when going with Oracle, which has enabled us to create this synergy between IT and business. IT has been able to facilitate the interaction Marvel needs among all of its groups."
Magala considers the tight integration between the database and the applications a competitive differentiator for Oracle. "Integration is one of the things we don't have to worry about, unlike if we were running applications such as SAP, or Oracle applications on a different database," he says.
Behind the scenes, Marvel runs a central data center that supports the New York headquarters and licensing operation, the California film production group, and a Netherlands- and U.K.-based international licensing center. Enterprise applications consist of Oracle E-Business Suite and its comprehensive set of financial modules for purchase orders, accounts receivable and payable, cash management, and general ledger.
All business transactions flow through Oracle E-Business Suite financial applications. "For example, finance is responsible for paying our freelance artists based on their productivity for the publishing group," Magala says.
"Using the tracking mechanism for the work they do for the publishing group, we can use the process-enabled Oracle solution and automate the back-end process so that we can pay incentives directly out of Oracle applications," he explains. "And although the studio uses its own production accounting system, as all movie studios do, we flow that data into Oracle applications through Oracle Projects."
Marvel also taps Oracle's Work in Process and Bills of Material modules to manage some of its publishing workflows. The company runs comic book production like a traditional manufacturing process, with an "assembly line" of freelancers that create page content and designs for each project, which then ship to a printer for final assembly.
Taking Advantage of Oracle
Supporting these Oracle E-Business Suite applications are Oracle Application Server and Oracle Portal for internal communications. Oracle Database 10g manages Marvel's enterprise data and provides a critical point of integration for the infrastructure. Oracle Database also helps the IT department attain the strict uptime requirements required by the business, with tools like Oracle Data Guard for data mirroring and flashback technology for rewinding data to a state prior to a failure point. "We've taken advantage of everything that Oracle Database provides for high availability," says Zachary Schepitsky, Marvel's DBA director.
Using a series of internally written scripts, Marvel also keeps an automated flow of data from the database traveling to a distant disaster-recovery site to protect against a catastrophic failure in the main data center. "We are using all of our recovery options just to be ready if something happens [so we can] recover to the point of failure at any time," Schepitsky adds.
For Magala, the single-source technology stack not only means reduced integration headaches and crucial reliability; his team can also react to quickly changing business conditions. "If a business process changes, it's easy for us to adapt Oracle applications to that new model," he says. "That would be a lot harder to do if we didn't have a single-vendor solution, and we were dealing with custom interfaces. Instead, we don't have to worry about having the order processing system talking to a financial system. It just happens."
IT-fueled change management capitalizes on one of the key ways midsize businesses differentiate themselves from larger businesses, says Rick Schultz, vice president of product marketing for Oracle Fusion Middleware. "For the IT department, that means being able to provide quick and reliable access to the right information, and just as importantly, to invest in technology that can scale as the business grows," Schultz says.
The preintegrated Oracle technologies let companies add new capabilities as performance needs evolve. "You can smoothly move up the stack by adding components, such as Oracle Real Application Clusters, to your database environment if you find your business has grown to where it needs 24/7 availability," Schultz says. A modular approach also eliminates the need to replace existing technology investments. "You can extend those investments, so as your information analysis needs grow, you can build out business intelligence components, or as you require additional security, you can add Oracle Identity Management products," he adds.
Preparing for the Future
Marvel will continue to build on its Oracle foundations. The company plans an upgrade to Release 12 of Oracle E-Business Suite, along with a move to Oracle Database 11g. Magala will use the integrated applications and middleware technologies as a platform for companywide business intelligence analytics. "There's a lot of opportunity to improve visibility and better measure the company's internal performance with business intelligence," he says.
Magala also plans to use Oracle SOA Suite and its standards-based BPEL engine to orchestrate more-efficient business workflows among Marvel's divisions.
Then, as now, the platform will allow Magala to run the IT department the way he likes toproactively. "I always want to be a step ahead of the business," he says. "When someone from the business side comes to me and says, 'Glenn, we'd like to do this. Can you help?' I want to say, 'Yes, we can easily deliver that solution.'"
Alan Joch (email@example.com) is a technology writer based in New England who specializes in enterprise, Web, and high-performance-computing applications.