Future Proof: To keep pace with mobile, social, and location-based services, smart technologists are using middleware to innovate.
by Minda Zetlin
There are times when it’s easy for IT executives at large enterprises to feel jealous of those who work for small startup companies. For instance, whenever an exciting new piece of customer-facing technology comes along (Mobile! Social! Mashups!), it’s easy enough for a young, nimble IT operation to try it out. But what can a large IT operation do when it has massive legacy systems and long-standing databases with millions or billions of data points in them?
Middleware technologies stand as enterprise systems’ interpreter, allowing them to communicate easily and integrate smoothly with newer applications that address mobile, social, location-based, and other new technologies. With middleware, everything can talk to everything else.
“The reality is that a lot of data is still very much tied up in legacy technologies,” says Benjamin Stein, founder and CTO of Mobile Commons, which creates mobile phone–based outreach systems for organizations from MasterCard to the New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “Those technologies aren’t going anywhere, so you need a third-party system to expose that corporate data to customers.”
Amit Zavery, vice president of product management for Oracle Fusion Middleware, agrees that most executives will not order a replacement of existing technology to keep pace with trends. “There will always be mission-critical applications that need to work with existing legacy systems. These systems were built 8 to 10 years ago, when Facebook didn’t exist and there was very little mobile technology,” he says. “Middleware allows you to keep pace with the changing world of technology, even as your enterprise applications mature.”
Without middleware, we’d have to handcraft a lot of code instead of being able to buy software components off the shelf.
Oracle Fusion Middleware is at the heart of a recently completed and very ambitious project to change how people handle the challenge of finding a parking space in San Francisco, California. “Parking is a universal issue that affects the quality of life in every city,” says Jay Primus, manager of SFpark, a project of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “SFpark is a demonstration of a new approach to managing that issue.”
The principles behind SFpark are conceptually simple though technologically complex: First, provide real-time information to people looking for parking about where spaces are available. Next, tweak the price of parking in relation to demand so that there are always at least a few spaces available everywhere.
The only way to accomplish these goals is to have data collected from parking meters, automatic garage gates, and on-street sensors relayed in real time to SFpark’s central system, and then back in real time to drivers’ mobile devices. “We have sensors at 8,200 of the city’s 27,000 metered parking spaces, and we get information from the gate arms at the city’s 14 garages, which among them have about 13,000 spaces,” Primus says. “That’s a total of about 21,000 spaces.”
People seeking parking can access information about available spaces in one of three ways: they can visit the SFpark Website, where parking space information is overlaid on Google Maps; they can use an iPhone app (with an Android version soon to come); or they can send a text message and receive a response telling them how many spaces are available at the city’s parking garages.
At the same time, SFpark uses the information it collects to constantly readjust its pricing, adjusting by up to 25 cents per hour every six weeks, based on occupancy data. Rates vary throughout the day as well, in accordance with demand. “We’re trying to zero in on the lowest rate possible that achieves our goal of having at least one open parking space on every block most of the time,” Primus says.
Results: SFpark’s Adjustable Meter Rates
With data managed by Oracle Fusion Middleware, SFpark can adjust meter rates to maintain a maximum of 80 percent occupancy on any given city block.
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Middleware makes it all work, with data from parking sensors and smart meters transmitted via XML back to SFpark. The data flows through Oracle Enterprise Service Bus. Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition is used for analysis of parking and smart meter data, and information is pushed back to meters and the meter vendor to create rate adjustments. “Without middleware, we’d have to handcraft a lot of code instead of being able to buy software components off the shelf,” notes Jaime Ballesteros, information systems project director for Sfpark.
For Mobile Commons, which created the text message portion of the project, middleware was a big help, converting XML into data forms that are appealing to developers of modern mobile applications. “There was no development needed—it was just a matter of configuring all the data they had,” Stein reports. “If we had done it from scratch, it would have been a very big project.”
Middleware played an essential role when Choice Hotels undertook a strategic new interface with Google—one that management wasn’t even certain they wanted to pursue. “Google calls one day and says they want to start embedding hotel rates and availability in search results in Google Places and their hotel finder,” says Rain Fletcher, vice president of application development and architecture at Choice Hotels. “Typically, you get an address and phone number but not availability.”
After careful consideration, Choice Hotels’ business leaders decided to pursue the opportunity because of the potential for new business the offer presented. But management did not want to invest significant development time in the project because they weren’t sure the partnership with Google would evolve into a long-term relationship.
This was complicated by the fact that supplying data to Google was no easy matter. And if Choice Hotels’ IT staff could not meet Google’s demands, the data would be considered stale and not show in search results. “Google required us to maintain our data for them, much the way Walmart requires suppliers to stock their shelves for them,” says Fletcher. “They needed availability in a 60-day window, which was hard for us because we usually work within a one-year or two-year window. Each data point also had to be updated every seven days, whether it had changed or not.”
Fortunately, 18 months earlier Choice Hotels IT moved to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) and implemented Oracle Fusion Middleware. With these technologies in place and a skilled team ready to go, Choice Hotels was able to meet the challenge Google posed. “We had two developers create the initial interface in six weeks,” Fletcher says.
Choice IT staff built the service-oriented solution with the help of Oracle Fusion Middleware products (Oracle SOA Suite, Oracle Service Bus, and Oracle WebLogic Server), sending Google 3.7 million data points from 6,000 hotels (at least 2.1 GB of data) each week. And because the Google project was implemented according to event-driven SOA best practices and design principles, Choice IT now benefits from four reusable enterprise services: Hotel Distribution Room Availability, Rate Changes, and Inventory Changes. The IT staff plans to reuse these services to simplify other B2B exchanges, supporting multiple languages and currencies for 35 countries.
“Having middleware made this complex business project much easier to execute,” says Fletcher.
The Choice Hotels and SFpark projects are just two examples of how middleware can make a huge difference to an IT operation’s ability to take advantage of new opportunities. “Middleware fills the need for agility,” Oracle’s Zavery says.
IT departments today have to deal with a constantly changing array of communications channels: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, as well as mobile, he notes. “It’s no longer people working at their desks; they need to communicate and find information through tablets and cell phones. How do you do that without disrupting anything?”
Billion: Estimated number of active mobile-broadband subscribers in the world in 2011. (Source: ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators database)
Then there’s the cloud, which is changing the way people deploy and access applications. “Many of the lines of business can now get their applications up and running quickly in the cloud,” Zavery says. “How do you provide the right access without having to create a complicated structure? How do you change business processes to make that happen quickly without having to rewrite everything?” Middleware provides an answer.
Middleware can also help solve classic business problems, such as the cost of bringing a new product to market and the complexities of managing services once that product has been launched. Fletcher points to the recently launched Choice Hotels iPad app and existing iPhone and Android apps as examples. “Every one of these channels is doing exactly the same thing on a different device,” he says. “If I do a new promo, I have to go touch each of these devices. Having a set of common services that each of these devices consumes in the same way makes development easier, and ensures a consistent experience for our guests.”
Those same common services supply data to the company’s Website, he adds. “We have a new version of our Website, and because of this architecture, we built it for about half the cost we expected. Oracle Fusion Middleware was certainly a contributing factor.”
Middleware allows you to keep pace with the changing world of technology, even as your enterprise applications mature.
Middleware’s ability to support speed and easy interfaces can also reduce “rogue” or “shadow” IT projects. Zavery believes the reason business executives attempt to solve their own technology problems is that corporate IT is not flexible enough to meet their needs. Standardizing on Oracle middleware allows IT to be more responsive and provide more cloud-based solutions, reducing the temptation for business executives to look elsewhere.
Zavery adds that an increased emphasis on customer experience means customers are asking for a closer look at your data. For instance, when an expected item is late, customers want to know what caused the delay and where the item is, not just when to expect it. “Customers are getting a better view to systems that traditionally were internal,” Zavery adds. “Middleware gives IT the fine-grained ability to determine what information is available to whom. You are no longer writing a monolithic application that is difficult to change. You’re writing a business process that can change very quickly.”
Additionally, middleware can give business analysts or other nondevelopers the ability to make changes to the applications they work with directly, modifying IT on the fly, based on what they’re seeing in the marketplace. “Middleware helps standardize a system that allows IT departments to future-proof their technology and ensure that they don’t have to keep rewriting things,” Zavery says.
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and coauthor of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive.