Wrap It UpBy David Baum
Design, build, and shape your service-oriented architecture with Oracle SOA Suite
Service-oriented architecture (SOA) has quickly gone from a futuristic information technology concept to a cost-effective way to build, integrate, and reuse modular business services. Oracle customers have deployed SOA applications in production environments, and some of these customers are using Oracle SOA Suite to take these applications to the next level by combining them with business process management frameworks and business intelligence (BI) environments. According to Harish Gaur, Oracle's group product manager, Oracle Fusion Middleware, customers see enormous business value when they enhance their SOA footprint with business intelligence, Web 2.0, and process modeling tools. Together, Oracle SOA Suite and Oracle Business Process Analysis Suite, which makes it easier to model business processes and convert them into useful information systems, offer customers an end-to-end business process modeling platform.
"Many organizations have built rich composite applications using Oracle SOA Suite with Oracle Application Development Framework (Oracle ADF) and Oracle WebCenter to offer self-service functionality to their customers and employees," says Gaur. "But it's not enough just to automate processes—you also need to monitor and improve them. Putting a layer of BI on top of SOA can give users tremendous insight into process performance and help them identify deficiencies and take corrective actions."
One organization taking full advantage of these applications is ViewSonic, a global provider of computer display products. IT pros at ViewSonic started working with SOA in 2006, mainly to integrate distribution operations more closely with the activities of external stakeholders such as distributors and vendors. "We had problems integrating their data into our systems, and we wanted to empower them to participate in our core business processes," says Dipankar Basu, manager of software applications at ViewSonic. "We also wanted to speed up certain customer-facing activities such as processing rebates."
With Oracle E-Business Suite controlling more than 90 percent of the company's business processes, ViewSonic developers needed an SOA system that integrates closely with Oracle applications. The company uses Oracle ADF Business Components and Oracle BPEL Process Manager, key components of Oracle SOA Suite. Oracle BPEL Process Designer, part of Oracle BPEL Process Manager, provides a unified design-time environment to develop user interfaces and orchestration services. This functionality helps Basu create automated workflow processes, and Oracle Web Services Manager gives his development team a safe way to expose company data. "This makes it easier to offer new services to customers and partners through Web-based interfaces," he says.
Basu sees two major benefits to Oracle SOA Suite: it can be deployed with minimal resources, and it interfaces directly with ViewSonic's core applications. Moreover, it enables developers to take advantage of their existing skill sets and staff knowledge, such as PL/SQL, Java, and Oracle's open interfaces to Oracle Forms and Oracle Reports. "We have a core team of just four developers, so we needed something that we could deploy quickly, with minimal hand-holding," Basu says. "We picked up Oracle SOA Suite with relative ease."
The team used Oracle JDeveloper and Oracle Application Development Framework to develop a sales allowance program. Web-based interfaces handle special pricing requests; direct interfaces link to external warehouses. ViewSonic now has six major sales allowances, which let distributors request special pricing and customers instantly process rebates. These allowances are revealed by Web services created with Oracle SOA Suite.
"Our key service metric involves how quickly we can turn around customer requests," says Basu. "Oracle SOA Suite helps us reduce turnaround times by more than half in most of our interactions with external stakeholders. The entire rebate process is now more accurate for customers and more efficient for ViewSonic."
Before ViewSonic implemented SOA technology, the rebate process was time consuming, requiring lots of paperwork, and entailed a cumbersome approval process. Automation brought single-point approval clearances. "The net result is not only a much faster turnaround, but all the data is in one place so there is less chance of fraud," Basu adds. "We also gained a much quicker and broader reporting capability."
ViewSonic plans to use this SOA technology to create additional customer-facing interfaces, to share other types of information with distributors, and to forge tighter links with suppliers. "We've proven that SOA can deliver tangible returns in a relatively short time frame," Basu says. "Oracle SOA Suite enables our team to do more with less."
Coordinating Critical Processes
SOA is changing how organizations look at and plan business services. "SOA helps organizations define critical business services and devise a flexible model of where the business is going," says Chris Haddad, vice president of applications platform strategies at Burton Group. "Once you perceive business functions and capabilities as services, you remove the traditional impediments to human workflow reengineering."
This concept is true for Move, Inc., as developers there strive to improve workflow processes used by distributors and business partners. Move is the leading online consumer destination for real estate search and for consumers seeking the information and connections they need before, during, and after a move. Move operates Move.com, a comprehensive real estate search engine with exclusive access to Realtor.com's listing content, as well as new home and rental content from throughout the Web. The company operates in an extremely competitive industry that requires it to bring new products to market quickly.
Move began its SOA journey because of a need for better integration. Following several corporate acquisitions, coordinating business processes among many different information systems and reconciling information between fulfillment and billing was a laborious manual task. Managers also lacked clear and timely visibility into the order-to-cash cycle. Each system used a unique internal ID to identify customers, which complicated the billing process. Additionally, there were multiple sources of orders and service requests, manual reconciliations between orders and fulfillment, and complicated billing and revenue recognition.
According to Manish Bhansali, Move's technology director, the complexity of these systems and the number of manual controls resulted in expensive auditing processes. Move needed information systems that helped accelerate the business rather than disrupting it or slowing it down.
Move selected Oracle SOA Suite because it integrates well with the company's existing back-office systems, as well as with new products that might be deployed in the future, Bhansali says. Move uses Oracle SOA Suite to coordinate activities among Oracle's PeopleSoft financials and human resources management applications, Oracle's Siebel Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and several Microsoft applications.
"SOA technology lets us extend and evolve these applications instead of replacing them," Bhansali says.
Oracle's Gaur agrees. "The value of Oracle SOA Suite to applications customers is twofold," he says. "It not only provides a certified, standards-based technology for applications customers, but it also helps them prepare for future Oracle Applications."
Move uses Oracle BPEL Process Manager to orchestrate the company's workflow processes in a visual, user-friendly way. The technology shields business users from the connectivity and structure of the applications, which is handled by Oracle SOA Suite. "Our developers simply define a process, and that process subscribes to the Oracle Enterprise Service Bus messaging standards," says Move's Bhansali. "Oracle BPEL Process Manager provides an audit trail that makes it easier for our financial officers to respond to auditors' questions."
To add analytic capabilities to its business, Move uses Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition, which in conjunction with SOA supplies insight into managing customers, orders, employees, and sales. "We use BI dashboards to give salespeople a constant view of business transactions in real time," says Bhansali.
Finally, Oracle Customer Data Hub creates a single source of customer information for Move. The data hub includes data cleansing, data deduplication, and data enrichment tools and creates cross-references among systems—so all users and applications can access accurate customer records. This accelerates sales and marketing processes, order capture and contract processes, and customer service processes, Bhansali says.
"Thanks to SOA, information flows to all parts of the business, easily and rapidly," says Bhansali. "As a result, billing processes that used to take 15 days now run in 15 minutes, and differences among platforms, software architectures, and network protocols are transparent."
Bhansali estimates that overall development time has been cut by 50 percent thanks to the SOA software. "We can route, log, and enrich information without rewriting applications, and we can deploy solutions incrementally, project by project, to better manage expenses," he notes.
Improved Customer Service
ABN AMRO uses Oracle SOA Suite to add cohesion to its customer-facing applications. As one of the largest banks in Europe and a global leader in wholesale, private, and retail banking, ABN AMRO selected the Oracle software to create a less-complex IT environment.
"We wanted to offer new services to customers more quickly and maintain a fast time to market—without encountering massive IT re-engineering," says Richard Kolkhuis Tanke, enterprise architect for ABN AMRO. "We had a business process management structure in place, but the whole environment was expensive and cumbersome. Creating or adapting applications to respond to business changes impacted many parts of the software infrastructure and thus required major IT involvement," he says.
These issues came to the fore when the bank started re-engineering its business processes to make it easier for customers to interact with the bank through multiple channels. "A customer should be able to open an account on our Web site, get halfway through the process, then pick up the phone to call the service hotline to add additional information," Kolkhuis Tanke says. "After that, he might appear in person to sign a contract, while his wife supplies a signature via the internet."
The resulting architecture combines these customer-facing channels and streamlines the bank's back-office business processes around PeopleSoft CRM. This makes the bank more appealing to customers while giving managers a firm grip on decision-making, reporting, and planning. "Oracle SOA Suite automates the development cycle and improves visibility into the underlying process," says Kolkhuis Tanke. "We expect to realize two to three times more productivity in both development and deployment using this SOA technology."
Involve Business Users
Involving business users—and not just IT pros—in the development process has resulted in a product that more accurately meets customer needs, according to Kolkhuis Tanke. Further, the functionality is more likely to be reused, which lowers long-term development costs.
"Ultimately, we have a more stable and available environment and can respond to new business opportunities more quickly," he says. "Oracle worked with us to help us achieve our goals for this project."
David Baum (email@example.com) is a freelance business writer based in Santa Barbara, California.