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SOA with Smarts

University of Virginia makes a new-school change to a venerable application.

by Alan Joch, August 2011

Officials at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) learned an important lesson while updating a system that tracks faculty research dollars. They started out trying to automate an existing system, which helps the school avoid multimillion-dollar penalties that arise if researchers don’t fulfill the terms of the grants that fund their projects. But along the way, U.Va. staff also discovered an upgrade doesn’t have to be a time-consuming and expensive procedure. The key: adding a collection of industry-standard technologies designed to create flexible interfaces and business processes between old and new programs.

These service-oriented architecture (SOA) tools, all part of Oracle SOA Suite, not only helped the U.Va. IT department modernize the painful paper-based portions of the grant audit process; they also expanded the art of the possible.

“Our users had been asking for this automation for a very long time, but we didn’t think it could be done in the way they wanted—until we saw SOA,” says Virginia Evans, assistant vice president for integrated system deployment and support at U.Va.

The new SOA foundation for plug-and-play upgrades is paying dividends—and the same framework will play a big role in streamlining future upgrades and will be a key component in the university’s long-term roadmap for adopting Oracle Fusion Applications. “We will have an important leg up when we implement our first [Oracle] Fusion modules,” Evans says.

Automated Reporting

For years, U.Va.’s certification process, known as the Effort Reporting System, helped address the compliance risks inherent in grant funding. Fund allocations are often based on the percentage of time top university researchers spend on a new project. Sometimes it’s the name or background of a specific individual that convinces grant providers to allocate funds in the first place. In return, the faculty “rock stars” must formally account for their project hours, which can be time consuming in itself and complex because top researchers often find themselves juggling multiple projects. If researchers can’t prove that they have met their minimum time commitment, funding agencies have the power to levy significant fines. In recent years, a handful of top-tier universities have had to pay multimillion-dollar fines because time commitments weren’t met or simply because records were inaccurate or incomplete.

U.Va. had avoided such penalties with a solution based on the Oracle Labor Distribution module within Oracle E-Business Suite, which managed salary data for U.Va.’s Effort Reporting System. But the workflow that supported this system relied on paper-based reports that required approval from faculty members, internal inspectors, and outside auditors. “We were shuffling paper all around the university to get researchers to certify the amount of time they spent on each grant,” Evans says. “It was not an automated process, except for the back end when the data came out of Oracle Labor Distribution.”

For years, IT understood the value of replacing paper reports with electronic documents that could travel across an automated workflow chain. Unfortunately, automation presented the U.Va. IT staff with two equally impractical choices: install an expensive third-party application to add specialized capabilities, or write their own application and create custom interfaces between the new program and the underlying Oracle applications.

The custom-interface choice would be costly to implement initially and would drain time and money whenever staff made changes to any of the software components. “The interfaces are just a bunch of code that’s hardwired together into brittle systems,” says Amy Andrews, director of functional architecture for Oracle Fusion Applications. “When you are faced with change, sometimes just the thought of revising your application systems is too much to bear, so you get stuck. Thanks to SOA, you don’t have to get stuck.”

SOA “Glues” the Old and New

SOA’s strength lies in its ability to deliver immediate and ongoing business benefits. It creates a flexible layer between individual business applications that breaks the old and rigid interfaces so individual programs can easily communicate and exchange data with each other. The right SOA tools can change business processes within a single system or cross technical boundaries to span multiple systems, even if the applications were created by different vendors. “That’s a huge benefit from using a SOA suite that’s based on open standards,” Andrews says.

The tools in Oracle SOA Suite revealed to U.Va.’s IT staff how the Effort Reporting System could be modernized without incurring steep customization costs. “SOA made it possible for us to easily ‘glue’ the complex workflows to the underlying Oracle applications,” U.Va.’s Evans says.

Successful Outcome

Implemented in only four months, the new online component helped U.Va. staff avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in modernization costs and created a more efficient solution for effort reporting. The new application U.Va. wrote replaces thousands of sheets of paper printed each year with an online reporting and approval system. Oracle SOA Suite sits between the new module and Oracle Labor Distribution and automatically routes reports for review and sign-offs using the suite’s industry-standard BPEL workflow engine.

The Oracle SOA Suite solution has achieved two other important goals. First, it stays within the Oracle product family, something Evans and her staff wanted to do to take advantage of the inherent compatibilities across all Oracle technologies. Second, designers of the new module wanted it to be so simple to use that staff members wouldn’t need special training. “Thanks to Oracle SOA Suite, we could build whatever we wanted on the front end,” Evans says.

The first phase of modernizing the Effort Reporting System addressed the lion’s share of the project’s original goals by providing automation for the most significant group of users: the faculty. It cost approximately US$300,000—far less than either of the non-SOA alternatives. Part of that investment included the services of EMS Consulting-Intelligent Chaos (EMS-IC), a systems integrator and a 2010 Oracle Fusion Middleware Innovation Award winner.

U.Va. officials partnered with EMS-IC because the firm specializes in SOA integrations with enterprise applications. It also has a successful track record in IT projects for higher education. In addition, EMS-IC showed a commitment to U.Va., ensuring a successful project. “It was important to have such an engaging client that was determined to be successful,” says Elaine Myrback, CEO at EMS-IC. “The involvement of university constituents gave us the momentum necessary to achieve a successful project together and establish a foundation for future success.”

An EMS-IC staff member remained onsite at U.Va. during much of the project, not only to help with the launch but also to train the U.Va. technical staff in SOA concepts and tools. “At first, there’s a lot for the technical staff to learn, because there are many new terms and new ways of doing things,” says Barbara Henry, project manager for the Effort Reporting System project. “But once they are onboard, they can very rapidly develop new applications.”

One indicator of the project’s success is how U.Va. has been using its staff more efficiently since the system went live last October. U.Va. calculates that the new Effort Reporting System automation will save 300 hours annually for each of its 200 Effort Reporting System coordinators. This equates to 60,000 staff hours that U.Va. can now devote to higher-value research activities.

Related to this, the time to certify reports has been cut in half—from 90 days for the paper-based certification process, when so many hard-copy reports were being passed around. Now, the school’s certifiers are easily meeting the new 45-day deadlines. “One big factor in the accuracy of the reporting effort is that it is harder for people to document the work they did the farther they are from the time when the work was accomplished,” Henry says. “So shortening the certification period is important.”

The upgraded system alerts faculty researchers and inspectors to potential certification problems. So if a faculty member contributes less than the promised amount of time to a project, the updated Effort Reporting System can route warnings to all necessary parties. The staff can then take appropriate action, whether it’s correcting inaccurate data or reducing the researcher’s salary to reflect the actual amount of time devoted to the project.

Another important test of the SOA strategy came seven months after the Oracle SOA Suite implementation. The IT staff upgraded U.Va.’s existing Oracle E-Business Suite 11.5.10 installation to Release 12.1.3. If SOA worked as advertised, this major upgrade would be so seamless that the university wouldn’t have to make any adjustments to the Effort Reporting System—the integration details should be solved by Oracle SOA Suite without any manual intervention.

Evans and her staff were hopeful that this would be the case, but they hedged their bets by setting aside extra money to cover any emergency consulting time needed to tweak the interfaces. In the end, they didn’t have to tap into the stash. “The very first day it went live, the Effort Reporting System was 100 percent usable and viable without a single change,” Henry says. The contingency fund is now being used to finance other projects.

The ease of integration afforded by Oracle SOA Suite represents a big change from past upgrades involving large enterprise applications, which needed to be completely reworked if there were hard-coded interfaces and customizations. That work alone could add 30 percent or more to the cost of a project, Evans says. “SOA is a layer in between that makes it so your customizations are isolated from the upgrades,” she explains.

A Roadmap for Oracle Fusion Applications

With the first phase of the upgrade completed, U.Va. staff are now adding reports that document staff and student contributions to grant-funded projects. This is a greater challenge than tracking faculty work; student and staff work may be spread over an even larger number of projects, with one lab specialist contributing to 15 different grant-funded projects. Approvals must come from a principal investigator for each grant, which could mean 15 different sign-offs. Evans expects that future adjustments to the Effort Reporting System will address these complexities as effectively as those for faculty members.

U.Va. planners also expect the Oracle SOA Suite infrastructure to provide flexible integrations for changes to other important enterprise applications, including systems run on Oracle’s PeopleSoft Enterprise applications and other Oracle E-Business Suite modules. Evans has a goal in mind: achieve real-time integration that allows applications to exchange information without the delay of an overnight batch process update. With real-time interfaces between the appropriate programs, updates such as class assignments can post as soon as they are made.

“Our people learned how to build services with Oracle SOA Suite and to create workflows using Oracle BPEL,” Evans says. “The tools and skills that they used for the Effort Reporting System will translate into other projects that we do. And that includes Oracle Fusion as we move toward those applications.”

The platform for Oracle Fusion Applications was built on SOA technologies and the principles of flexible services. So even if Oracle Fusion Applications are absent from the U.Va. IT infrastructure in the short term, IT staff are already crystallizing their strategy. The likely approach will be to add Oracle Fusion Applications modules over time to build on U.Va.’s existing capabilities.

“We will likely be able to take advantage of Oracle Fusion Applications sooner rather than later, because we already know how to integrate them,” says Evans. “And the SOA skills are already in-house.”

For More Information

Peaceful Coexistence
Oracle Service-Oriented Architecture
Oracle E-Business Suite


Alan Joch is a New England–based technology writer.

 
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