big-ideas-features
 

Stellar Service

OnStar shines in new markets with SOA-based infrastructure from Oracle.

by Tara Swords, November 2010

The OnStar in-vehicle communications system is many things to many people. It’s turn-by-turn directions in an unfamiliar location. It’s a reminder when the oil needs changing. It’s salvation when a driver sits unconscious, air bags deployed, after a head-on collision. But the best way to sum up the OnStar service is this: It’s the answer to just about anything you could need—from convenience to lifesaving help—while behind the wheel.

When General Motors (GM) launched OnStar nearly 15 years ago, it was the only service of its kind. It provided customers with a direct link, via the touch of a button, to a customer representative in a call center at any time of day or night.

Since then, OnStar has significantly expanded its services. Today, the system can remotely unlock a customer’s doors, connect a driver to roadside assistance, make and receive phone calls, slow down a stolen vehicle until it comes to a stop, identify evacuation routes in a weather crisis, and dispatch emergency medical personnel to exact GPS coordinates. It can even tell emergency responders the vehicle’s change in velocity when it crashed, helping them anticipate the severity of injuries and possible level of intervention required before they arrive on the scene.

In other words, OnStar’s service can be—quite literally—a matter of life and death for its 5.7 million subscribers worldwide. And when it comes to IT, the stakes don’t get higher than that. 

Steering Toward a New Architecture

OnStar’s IT architecture had served the company well for more than a decade when leaders decided an upgrade was in order. They had ambitious plans to launch several new services, offer customers more functionality via the Web and mobile devices, and expand into the Chinese market. The company needed to move quickly, too; the faster the IT team could deploy a more flexible architecture, the faster executives could act on plans and keep a leg up on the competition.

But these plans called for more than just a routine systems upgrade. If OnStar were to grow its service portfolio and expand into new markets globally, its organically grown IT infrastructure would have to undergo a dramatic makeover.

“We’ve added features over time, and each one of them had an application behind it,” says Jeff Liedel, CIO at OnStar. “What we found is that we had coded the same functionality—the basic functionality of how to contact the vehicle, store information about the vehicle, what features were available on the vehicle—over and over again.”

The problem with that design is that system changes can be a nightmare. Imagine a new hardware release: Every OnStar service is tied to an individual application that must be manually upgraded to support the new hardware, even if the pieces of code that must be changed are the same in each application.

Such a system wasn’t well suited to OnStar’s plans, says Doug Mutart, chief architect at OnStar. He says the OnStar IT team needed to modernize all IT systems, moving from a legacy client/server model to a more Web-based architecture. In the process, the IT team sought to remove the numerous point-to-point interfaces that made it difficult to change the system, and move to a loosely coupled architecture for integration. “We’ve done a great job of keeping [systems] highly available and reliable, but as we looked at global expansion, adding all these new services, and stretching the scope and scale of our business, it became obvious that we had to replace those aging systems with something new,” Mutart says.

Mutart and other OnStar IT leaders chose a SOA approach to the upgrade, in which services—individual functions or events that serve as IT building blocks—can be called up and reused by multiple systems. In SOA, changes are made via configuration, not by manual coding. And since a SOA requires no point-to-point integration, it prevents the tangled mess of direct connections that eventually have to be disconnected and reconnected in new ways whenever technology changes.

“What we’re trying to do with SOA is have one integration point so we can go make that upgrade in one spot and not have to touch six different systems and update six different systems,” Liedel says.

In a company like OnStar, which sees an average of 36 system releases and 8,000 IT changes per year, the time and dollar savings of a SOA could be huge. SOA would give OnStar an architecture optimized for quick change. 

OnStar Turns to Oracle

In mid-2007, Mutart and his team began a year of planning and designing the company’s new platform. A SOA would require a middle layer that could, in effect, “mediate” events among all of OnStar’s enterprise applications. Early in the process, the team decided to select a software suite rather than purchase and spend time manually integrating multiple point solutions.

During an extensive testing period, OnStar pitted Oracle SOA Suite against competing solutions. In the end, Mutart selected Oracle for several reasons. Oracle SOA Suite included all of the company’s required tools, including a business rules engine, a BPEL engine, an enterprise service bus, and monitoring and management tools—all using a common visual design tool. Many of the suite’s individual components were best of breed. Plus, Oracle offered the price/performance ratio that OnStar needed, along with a global presence and the proven ability to provide mission-critical support. Finally—and perhaps most important—Oracle was already a trusted supplier.

“I would consider the relationship between OnStar and Oracle—and between GM and Oracle—to be one of our few really, truly strategic relationships from an IT perspective,” Mutart says. “We really rely on Oracle’s technology stack throughout the OnStar IT landscape. At this time, where we are with the launch of our new global systems, this is as good as it gets in terms of having a strategic relationship with a key IT supplier.”

The project’s first major milestone was a scheduled launch of Shanghai OnStar in December 2009. That way, the architecture could be designed from scratch and deployed in a brand-new market. Then, the new systems could be implemented in a phased approach in OnStar’s North American operations.

Throughout the entire project, Oracle worked closely with OnStar to ensure that the architecture reflected the best possible design and implementation practices.

“We had lots of onsite support, including Oracle’s A-team, and lots of onsite support in Shanghai during our launch,” Mutart says. “They were very much about making sure we had the right design and providing postdeployment support as we worked out the kinks.” 

Saving with SOA

Shanghai OnStar, based on Oracle SOA Suite, launched on time in December 2009, and has already reached 50,000 subscribers throughout mainland China. OnStar North America deployed three of its new global systems in March 2010 and plans to deploy new customer relationship management (CRM), billing, and provisioning systems in the first half of 2011.

Since going live, the new SOA-based infrastructure has helped OnStar eliminate tens of thousands of lines of code and achieve significant cost savings.

“From a development point of view, we were able to significantly reduce our application development and deployment costs—about a 40 percent reduction over what it would have taken,” Mutart says. “We probably will see a 45 percent reduction in our ongoing sustained costs with these systems, which then gives us the opportunity to reinvest that savings into new services for customers.”

For example, OnStar now has the capacity to more quickly take advantage of emerging channels such as mobile devices. Drivers of the new Chevrolet Volt, GM’s much-anticipated plug-in extended-range electric vehicle, can download a mobile application to their iPhone or Android-based device and use it to remotely heat up or cool down the cabin. Because the application executes this command before the driver disconnects the car from its power source and begins driving, it can help optimize the performance of the car’s battery.

The mobile application offers many other features, such as notifications of charging status. “The flexibility and agility we’ve obtained with SOA have enabled us to bring these projects to life,” Mutart says.

Another benefit of SOA is the ability to quickly and simply localize services to new geographies. OnStar’s legacy systems could not support multiple languages, countries, or currencies. Using Oracle SOA Suite, OnStar developers can now build fully internationalized applications and interfaces that can be localized for business in each region without time-consuming recoding. That will make ventures in new regions faster and easier to launch.

All along, the number of active OnStar subscribers in North America and China has been steadily growing, meeting or exceeding forecasted numbers each month. In fact, 80 percent of GM vehicle buyers say that OnStar is important to the purchase decision. Oracle SOA Suite now processes more than 4 million transactions from those buyers every day. When transactions are routed to OnStar’s call centers, an Oracle database serves up relevant data about the drivers and their vehicles. The system helps OnStar provide a highly personalized interaction and gives GM an ongoing CRM touchpoint with its customers—something that’s rare in the automotive world.

But without a doubt, Mutart says, the biggest benefit has been the speed and flexibility with which OnStar can launch new features that keep its service fresh and ahead of the competition. For example, after deploying several of its North American systems on Oracle SOA Suite, OnStar refined an application that sends monthly vehicle diagnostic e-mails to subscribers. Those e-mails now include warranty, wear, and maintenance information. Prior to the implementation of the SOA system, adding that information would have taken six months; using Oracle SOA Suite, it took just six weeks.

Some at GM saw OnStar’s ambitious rearchitecting project as a stretch, if not an impossibility. And while Mutart agrees that it was a stretch, everyone on the project team—from both OnStar and Oracle—was more than willing to reach high.

“It was a monumental feat of technical engineering, project management, and requirements management, working side by side with business stakeholders,” Mutart says. “This was a kind of once-in-an-IT-career opportunity to see a complete, end-to-end transformation of the IT landscape in a short period of time.” 

The Road Ahead

As OnStar North America works toward a 2011 deployment of its new CRM, billing, and provisioning systems, Shanghai OnStar is planning to deploy another major release before the end of 2010. In both geographies, the company will use Oracle SOA Suite to ensure that old and new systems are compatible during the launch of new Websites, mobile applications, and voice applications.

Increasingly, SOA is part of a strategy to increase agility within the walls of many businesses in all industries, says David Shaffer, vice president of product management at Oracle, who specializes in SOA. It’s an important way that businesses such as GM are working to streamline IT operations.

“I think the current economic conditions, combined with all of the M&A activity and the nature of business today, mean that you really can’t control your business environment in any significant fashion,” Shaffer says. “The competitors who respond most rapidly, cheaply, and efficiently to change are going to win.”

Meanwhile, GM has signaled that it intends to come out a winner after undergoing a dramatic makeover of its own. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009 amid the fallout from the global economic crisis, the restructured company is now leaner and more focused on profitability. In fact, one year after declaring bankruptcy, GM announced profits of US$1.3 billion in the second quarter of 2010. In August, GM filed for an initial share offering that will bring it back to public markets and set it further down the road of reinvention.

GM’s decision to bolster OnStar and make it a defining feature of its revitalized brand has realigned the two companies.

“OnStar had always been focused on the customer, and the new GM is also very much focused on the customer and making sure that we deliver the best cars and trucks on the market,” Mutart says. “OnStar is a huge contributor to both of those goals because we can provide vehicle diagnostic data and customer insights that help GM improve the vehicles we sell and service the customer better. Now more than ever, OnStar’s mission aligns with the mission of GM.” 

For More Information

SOA 101
Oracle Service-Oriented Architecture
Oracle Fusion Middleware

  


 Tara Swords is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

 
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