Sterling accelerates personnel screening with SOA

The need for flexibility in performing background checks beckons an architectural shift

Imagine having to vet, and vouch for, the potential hires of more than 6,000 companies across multiple industries, each with its own employment procedures and compliance regulations from government agencies such as the DoT and OSHA. Probably not the best endeavor to undertake with rigid systems and processes in place.

For Sterling Testing Systems, a provider of employment and background screening services, flexibility and agility are operational imperatives. And in the cutthroat outsourcing game, where the firm that delivers the fastest results with the fewest errors at the lowest cost wins, the best way Sterling saw to achieve that meant a switch to SOA (service-oriented architecture).

"For us the SOA is ideal," says Sterling CTO Michael Richardson, referring to his company's BPO (business process outsourcing) platform. "It's the classic scenario where we're taking literally hundreds or thousands of data sources, combining data from these sources into an intelligent network, and then executing long-running and complicated business processes against those data sources."

Determining the solution is one thing; implementing it, however, is another -- especially as Sterling's business model requires that its systems manage a Gordian knot of processes that bend in many directions and hinge on countless variables.

Richardson and his team addressed the challenge by stitching together a BPM platform (Lombardi TeamWorks), a rules engine (ILOG JRules), and an enterprise service bus (Apache ServiceMix). A Liferay portal framework provides the front end to some 100,000 external users and the 800 Sterling employees who serve them.

While the BPM layer maps out all the steps for any given process, having a rules management system in place allows those processes to be steered according to client-specific, industry-specific, or jurisdiction-specific variables.

"As the regulations change, or as the clients change their minds, or as the need arises to introduce new decision making into the model, we don't have to go back and recompile hard code and regression-test many, many lines of code and threaten the integrity of our repositories," Richardson explains. "It's more a matter of configuration."

As such, flexibility was a key consideration when architecting the system, Richardson notes. Here, tight collaboration with the business side was essential to his team's success.

Adopting the Lean Six Sigma business improvement methodology also had a deep impact on Sterling's SOA push, bringing more attention to BPM and the need to measure business processes more finely, Richardson says.

"The concept of control limits and operational metrics and the whole value-added analysis put more emphasis, and frankly the need for more development work, in that area," Richardson says. "It's a business imperative that has directly and I think very positively impacted the architecture that wasn't envisioned back when this all started."

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