Integrating ApplicationsBy David A. Kelly
Oracle technology connects your vertical and horizontal applications to create efficient business processes.
While many business processes, such as basic financial accounting or human resources, are relatively common among companies, it’s often the specialized processes and applications that make each organization unique. And while specialization might be good for business, it can be hard for IT—because specialized processes in a variety of horizontal and industry-specific applications must work together.
That’s one reason why there’s been an increased focus on service-oriented architecture (SOA), standards-based middleware such as Oracle Fusion Middleware, and adaptable integration strategies that can span complex, heterogeneous environments. SOA is attractive to organizations that need to integrate applications and business processes that cross departments or IT boundaries.
“Most of our customers have specialized applications that are specific to their industry, while they also have traditional back-office processes that are handled in enterprise solutions such as Oracle E-Business Suite,” says Hasan Rizvi, senior vice president of product development, Oracle. “So there’s always a need to enable adaptable integration between these types of vertical and horizontal applications.”
A Productivity-Oriented Approach
Almost any company is bound to have a few specialized applications; some sectors, such as government and education, may have many.
“Our new undergraduate admissions implementation is a vertical stack of Oracle solutions, third-party applications, and in-house-developed components,” says Robin Beck, vice president, information systems and computing, University of Pennsylvania (Penn). “Our Oracle-based foundation provides the flexibility we need to integrate our specialized applications to support the processes that best meet the university’s needs.”
As a result, the core solutions that drive Penn’s shared-services architecture are built around Web-based middleware components from Oracle that enable integration and flexibility. In addition, the university relies on Oracle E-Business Suite for core back-end processes, as well as enabling Oracle infrastructure components such as Oracle Internet Directory, Oracle Enterprise Single Sign-On Suite, Oracle Real Application Clusters (Oracle RAC), and Oracle Portal.
The university originally invested in Oracle E-Business Suite in the 1990s. “Our decision to go with Oracle E-Business Suite has served us well and is consistent with the fact that we’re constantly moving toward the most flexible architecture,” says Beck. “Oracle, with its standards-based architecture, enables us to do that.”
A flexible architecture was necessary to meet Penn’s goal of creating a heterogeneous IT environment to support its business needs. “We want a modular, extensible kind of architecture that supports interoperability for a heterogeneous environment,” says Beck. “Reuse is very important for us, along with Web and component-oriented architectures and integration across various computing platforms.”
A good example of how the University of Pennsylvania is leveraging a robust architecture to achieve its goals is the university’s new undergraduate admissions system. As with every other college or university in the country, undergraduate admissions at Penn is an extremely important business process. The university usually selects 2,500 new freshmen each year from 20,000 to 25,000 applications, after reaching out to close to 100,000 potential applicants. To draw the best possible students, the university needs to make the undergraduate admissions system accessible 24/7, 365 days a year, so that prospective students anywhere can learn about Penn and apply.
“In our new undergraduate admissions system, we make great use of Oracle RAC because it provides the sort of redundant, recoverable database service that avoids unscheduled outages due to hardware failures or load balancing problems and enables us to achieve a steady, uniformly available platform for all applicants and prospects worldwide,” says Beck.
“Our objective is to make the University of Pennsylvania accessible to everyone so that we have a truly outstanding class of freshmen each year. That’s what we’re all about. So the new undergraduate admissions system and the Oracle components that it uses are absolutely critical to our mission.”
Going With the Flow
Sometimes, integrating vertical and horizontal applications not only simplifies business processes but has a tangible (and positive) economic benefit. The City of Las Vegas, Nevada, demonstrates this.
About 12 years ago, the city’s CIO set the standard that its legacy applications would be moved over to applications that run on an Oracle database. Since then, the city has standardized on Oracle E-Business Suite, including financials, purchasing, human resources, payroll, and advanced benefits modules.
“Oracle E-Business Suite is our foundation, and the other applications that we’re implementing throughout the city flow or integrate into our Oracle applications,” says Patricia Dues, enterprise program manager, City of Las Vegas.
Yet like any municipality—and most companies—the city also has specialized systems, such as applications that track and collect revenue from a variety of sources, including parking fees, permits, building inspections, and business fees. And each time that Las Vegas deploys a new application, the city’s IT professionals make sure that it integrates with the core Oracle E-Business Suite systems. Good examples are the applications that collect revenue.
“Revenues are collected in approximately 15 source systems,” says Dues, “but we’ve created integrations with Oracle E-Business Suite so they’re all set up to flow into our Oracle General Ledger for revenue. For example, the city collects revenues for programs, activities, and classes in a leisure services application called Class. We built an interface from Class to Oracle General Ledger so that the revenue flows automatically at the end of the day into Oracle E-Business Suite.”
Not only does that reduce the dual-entry bookkeeping and attendant errors that used to happen, but the transactions flow into the city’s general ledger right away so that the revenue is recognized more quickly. “We used to have to post revenues first to the subsystem and then to Oracle Financials,” says Dues. “Now it’s one-step input, and then the integration takes it away.”
In addition to the courts system, sewer billing, business licensing, and other departments that benefit from this infrastructure, Dues has undertaken a major integration effort to move the billing of land development fees, tracking and monitoring of building and safety inspection and permit fees, and billing of fire inspections to Oracle Accounts Receivable using Oracle BPEL Process Manager.
Previously, the city used traditional integration approaches, but over the past three years, it has switched to using Oracle BPEL Process Manager within Oracle SOA Suite. Initially, consultants created templates for integration interfaces, and now city programmers can modify them when they need to do new integrations.
“BPEL has made it a lot simpler for us to move data between applications,” says Dues. “There’s really a time savings in developing the integration interfaces. Using traditional integration solutions could take anywhere from three to six months. However, we recently built a BPEL interface for our work asset management system in a couple of weeks, tested it, and rolled it out in probably half the time that a traditional interface would have taken. In addition, once we build an interface in BPEL, we can reuse it. It’s simplified the process and definitely saves us time.”
Dues considers Oracle SOA Suite to be the new technical foundation for the city’s future applications and integrations. “One of the key benefits of using the SOA components [such as Oracle BPEL Process Manager] is that now we can offload some of the tasks that might have been done in a specialized application to a standardized middleware like Oracle’s,” says Dues.
For example, one of the important city applications is a land management application. Instead of doing the billing within the land management application, as the city might have done previously, it now uses BPEL interfaces to flow the transactions into Oracle E-Business Suite and lets the software manage the billing processes. “Now, instead of doing all that customization, we can build adaptable integrations with technologies like SOA and BPEL and easily offload those processes to a core system like Oracle E-Business Suite,” Dues says.
Having the right infrastructure to ensure seamless integration also means that employees can better focus on their jobs. “Now our users have to learn only the applications they use all day long to do their specialty. They don’t need to learn other applications such as Oracle Purchasing or [Oracle] Accounts Payable,” says Dues. “It’s all handled in the background with the interface, so we can train employees on what they really need to do their jobs, while the system does the work. It expedites training and getting people comfortable with their jobs.”
A Framework for Success
Another example of an organization faced with the challenge of integrating multiple specialized applications with a consistent set of back-end applications is West Virginia University. Ever since it implemented Oracle E-Business Suite, the university has used the applications software to drive core business processes, such as managing payroll, running human resources, and producing financial reports.
“With an environment as diverse as the university, we have requests for little applications all over the campus,” says Kate Hazen, executive director, administrative technology solutions, West Virginia University. “We have our core back-end systems, but we also have maybe 200 or 300 other specialized applications all over the place. The struggle we had was that we were writing little one-off reports or integrations to all these systems, and the maintenance overhead was just incredible.”
West Virginia University’s solution was to invest in Oracle Fusion Middleware. The goal was to build solutions once and then reuse them.
For example, departments all over the university need personal demographics information for analysis purposes. Rather than give everyone a customized solution, Hazen’s department is creating a SOA-based middleware service that’s wrapped with the appropriate security, so that each user or specialized application can call that service from other applications.
“Now we have to write it only once, so it doesn’t have to be reinvented over and over again,” says Hazen.
One aspect that was important to the university’s success with SOA and its adaptable integration strategy has been expertise provided by the consulting firm EMS Consulting-Intelligent Chaos (EMS-IC).
“EMS-IC provided us with a framework to build and deploy our application quickly,” says Hazen. “It would have taken us two years to develop it, but we had something on the ground and running within a couple of months. Having the right partner has meant everything to us.”
Another important component of the university’s success has been Hazen’s ability to divide her development group into teams.
“We’ve struggled for years to align our new Web-oriented needs with the existing skill sets,” says Hazen. “Some developers are really good at Web development, others are good at Oracle E-Business Suite. SOA has provided us with a great opportunity for them to work together, each concentrating in their area. This is the first time that each person has had a niche to build one application and work in the area that they’re most comfortable and skilled at. Now all our developers can feel like they have created an enterprise-level application, and they all played a part in it as a team, rather than as individuals.”
The university’s first SOA application—a leave request system—goes into production March 1, 2009. The previous application, which had about 500 users, is shifting to one that will be used by 10,000 employees. Hazen says that Oracle BPEL Process Manager makes it possible.
“Oracle BPEL Process Manager works very well. It’s very stable and does exactly what we need it to do,” says Hazen. “We’re pretty much at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we can do going forward.”
For Florida A&M University, integration is a key objective for streamlining business processes as well as increasing security. The university is working to leverage the interoperability of the latest version of Oracle’s PeopleSoft applications to integrate non-PeopleSoft applications, such as Blackboard Academic Suite.
“We are also integrating a plant operations application with our PeopleSoft Financials and PeopleSoft Asset Management software,” says Robert Seniors, chief information officer and vice president for information technology, Florida A&M University. “And we’re using Oracle middleware to provide a single-sign-on platform not only for our PeopleSoft application but our e-mail applications and all of our non-PeopleSoft Web-based applications. Now, instead of juggling multiple credentials to gain access to those systems, we’ll have one common interface utilizing Oracle Fusion Middleware for a single-sign-on solution.”
Over the second half of 2008, the school used Oracle Fusion Middleware and Oracle Access Manager to strengthen its access controls to all of the systems, including PeopleSoft. In addition, the school is using hardware-based secure ID tokens that are fully integrated into Oracle Access Manager and the Oracle Fusion Middleware suite to provide an additional layer of security and protection. The solution will help secure remote users as well as guard against security breaches and potential malicious software attacks.
“It’s been a very exciting project for us,” says Seniors. “Our users are happy because they no longer have to remember multiple user IDs and passwords to gain access to the various systems. They have one common Web interface that will then allow them to use one credential, one password, and a token if need be to gain access to all of the applications on campus.”
The benefits have been noticeable. “It’s more secure, more efficient, and certainly strengthens those asset controls,” says Seniors. “And when you can do all of those things and make it easy for the end user, that’s a testimony to Oracle’s middleware suite.”
One of the aspects that’s been important to Florida A&M is Oracle’s focus on out-of-the box integration.
“It was very nice to have that out-of-the-box functionality and content already there,” says Seniors. “It’s not like we had to go through a lot of development to pull all of this together. We’ve been able to put our projects on a fast track simply because the Oracle Fusion Middleware and Oracle Access Manager products were available to us. They have all of these built-in connectors to other applications. They hook in seamlessly with our e-mail system, our Blackboard application, and all of our PeopleSoft applications, and you can easily extend them to any Web-based application. It’s been very easy, and it didn’t break the bank.”
David A. Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a business, technology, and travel writer who lives in West Newton, Massachusetts.