SOA centers take apps apart to put them back together

IBM's SOA centers in India and China are driving nimble services

When you’re as big a services company as IBM ($12 billion in third quarter 2006 alone), doing work for as many customers as Big Blue does, you start to notice some patterns in the work you do.

Take insurance. IBM counts many insurance companies as customers, and their needs are unique. But they also tend to share some of the same business processes, such as RQI (rate quote issuance), the process for developing a rate quote for home or automobile policies.

[Read about Webify, the company that provides the basis for IBM’s SOA platform.]

Rather than just consulting a table, insurance companies doing RQI need to hook into information about where the customer lives, their credit history, driving record, as well as the history of the car or property that the customer is trying to insure, says Brett MacIntyre, IBM’s vice president for Composite Services Development.

“If you look at the business decomposition of a business solution, there are component services that are common across each of them,” MacIntyre says.

Rather than code and re-code slightly different flavors of the same component for each client, IBM plans to build the RQI process into a reusable asset that reflects the best practice in the insurance industry, he adds.

RQI is just one of a hundred such reusable SOA (service oriented architecture) components that IBM has built and that are now being used to build new solutions from the ground up for each client. The components are part of a larger effort at IBM to leverage the company’s deep application development and IT services expertise to create a storehouse of reusable assets that can be used with customers of all stripes.

Now IBM is taking the promise of SOA reusability a step further: setting up SOA Solutions Centers at Pune, India, and Beijing. Their charter: to identify and create composite business services that can be reused by other customers in the same industry.

“What we are really doing by building reusable assets is allowing customers to build their solutions that much quicker and become very flexible,” MacIntyre says.

“Customers are going to be able to reconstitute to be able to meet a new business dynamic,” MacIntyre says.

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The SOA Centers are among the first of their kind, although other IT services vendors are moving quickly to duplicate IBM’s model. As IBM moves deeper into the development of reusable assets, however, some wonder where the line is drawn between reusable application components and full-blown applications.

Different customers, similar needs

As he looked across the breadth of consulting operations at IBM’s Global Business Solutions Center (GBSC) in Bangalore, India, Jeby Cherian, who heads the center, had no doubt that the creation of reusable SOA services would cut down on time to implementation and reduce the risk of delivery for clients.

The GBSC was set up in March to be the company’s global hub for the management and creation of reusable software components, including SOA services. With around 500 employees, it has in the last six months created about 100 software assets that IBM’s global delivery centers are using for their customers.

A key promise of SOA is that services can be built once and used often, thus cutting down on cost and time for completing a new project. “Reusability is a big benefit that SOA will be able to deliver. That and interoperability is the whole point about SOA,” says Marianne Hedin, an analyst at the research firm IDC.

The model is a “win-win” for both the vendor and customers, Hedin says. It is a win for IBM, as it will speed up application development, and it’s a win for the client, as it will be less expensive to license a preconfigured solution.

Building reusable assets

Given a complex development and integration project, which services should get tapped for reusable components? IBM’s strategy so far has been to select reusable services based on their potential to be applied to other customer solutions.

Once reusable assets are identified, IBM abstracts the process logic from the IT implementation, making it easy to customize or modify the process, while minimizing change to the IT implementation, says Sudhir Sastry, leader of IBM’s SOA Solutions Center in Pune, India.

If the process was directly coded into the IT implementation before, IBM now uses process-modeling tools to develop a workflow for the process, and then applies business objects and the interfaces for the specific IT implementation, Sastry adds.

For example, the company was recently tapped to develop an order-entry system for a U.S.-based telecommunications service provider. The solution needed to allow the service provider to provision voice, video, and data and other services on a single order entry system, bundle services for a customer and provide cross-service discounts, says Jasabanta Choudhury, telecom practice leader at the GBSC.

Looking at the requirements, IBM decided that the order-entry process would be relevant to other telecommunications companies that are trying to shore up flagging margins.

“Until now the information that was available to service providers about customers was in silos, so they could not have a complete view of the customer and all the services [available to] him,” Choudhury says.

Making the order reusable beyond IBM’s specific consulting engagement posed a number of problems, however. For example, the entry system would have to be usable by customers across multiple geographies. To accomplish that, the GBSC tapped internal documentation of telecommunications processes and adopted standards developed by the TeleManagement Forum, a telecommunications industry association, Choudhury says.

Having satisfied its U.S. customer, IBM has now deployed the same order entry asset for a customer in Europe. And more orders are in the pipeline, Choudhury adds.

SOA components have helped IBM along the way, as it moves from a labor-based application development model to an asset-based deployment approach, according to Cherian.

“If we create an asset and go to a customer, it is 70 to 80 percent made, and then we will use the client’s unique processes to make it unique for the client,” Cherian adds.

Application-like — but not actually applications

The strategy to get into reusable assets took about three years to evolve within IBM. Because reusable software assets are similar to products, IBM’s consulting business needed to build skills along the way in areas like version management and maintenance of the asset, which it had to learn from the software group, according to Cherian.

But at what point do “reusable assets” simply become a euphemism for standardized “software applications?”

IBM insists that its strategy to create reusable SOA components isn’t about getting back into application development. The creation of reusable components is not the same as building applications, according to MacIntyre.

Instead, IBM is building “piece parts:” the pieces of business process that augment and complement large business applications, MacIntyre says.

What’s the difference? For one thing, composite business services have to be highly customizable: hooked into existing data flows, presentation layers, and the overall business process that companies have, MacIntyre says.

“If you look at an entire solution, not all of that may be in the form of composite business services or modules,” MacIntyre says. In other words, there’s still a lot of customization based on the core solution. “We are not at the stage of the Ford assembly line where you pick your parts and put them all together.”

On the other hand, IBM’s not necessarily at the at the pre-assembly line days where each car was handcrafted, MacIntyre adds.

Unlike the software application business, the business context in which the reusable asset is deployed is also likely to be quite different from customer to customer, according to analysts.

“There are common business processes across many businesses from many different industries,” says IDC’s Hedin. “But there are also business processes that are unique, and as you start going into the subprocesses, you may find more uniqueness.”

In addition to IBM, a number of vendors including Accenture, Capgemini, and Hewlett-Packard are working on preconfigured SOA services in their labs. The consensus among all these companies is that some level of customization of the components will always be required, Hedin adds.

And there’s still a fair amount of hand holding to get clients to accept a changed process and new way of doing things, Cherian says.

Every reusable asset contains a prescription, a leading-edge practice about how a process should be done.

Often, delays in implementation reflect the difficulties of change management involved in getting the entire organization to accept the changed process, not technology-related issues, Cherian says.

The SOA ecosystem

To make sure that the assets it invests in are relevant to as many customers as possible, IBM is backing its reusable components with a larger governance model. The company, for example, has industry solutions boards, each addressing a specific industry segment, which are made up of representatives from IBM’s consulting, research, software and systems groups, and covering all the geographies.

“They are the ones who decide whether an asset is worth building, so it is a kind of check and balance that we are not building an asset for a market of one,” Cherian says.

For now, the company’s strategy to create reusable assets is based at the GBSC in Bangalore and the SOA Solutions Centers in Pune and Beijing. While 500 staff at the SOA Solutions Center in Pune will focus on the insurance and health care industries, its counterpart in Beijing, also with 500 staff, will develop SOA services for the banking industry and government.

Locating the SOA Solutions Centers in India and China was no accident.

First and foremost, IBM has a presence in both countries and is familiar with their cultures, and hence can take advantage of the engineering skills and relatively low cost of labor available in these countries, says IDC’s Hedin. But there are also deeper reasons.

IBM is using technology from its acquisition of SOA software and services vendor Webify Solutions as the foundation for building composite business services. Webify, which was headquartered in Austin, Texas, already had a development center in Mumbai, near Pune. IBM also has considerable software development capability in India through its India Software Lab in Bangalore.

“What we are doing in composite business services is essentially software development, so we could take advantage of the skills there,” MacIntyre says.

The same can be said of the second SOA Solutions Center, set up in China, where IBM operated a software lab with an SOA design center, bringing a combination of software and SOA skills, MacIntyre says.

The software produced in the two SOA Solutions Centers will get incorporated into the bigger solutions that IBM’s network of global delivery centers, located in 21 countries, are putting together for customers, MacIntyre says.

IBM’s global delivery centers, particularly the ones in India and China, also play a key role in helping the company identify business processes that could be potentially made into reusable components. There will be synergy between the global delivery centers and the SOA Solutions Centers in both countries, and the delivery centers can bring ideas for reusable assets back from the customer, Hedin said.

The Indian global delivery center, for example, supports eight of the largest telecommunications companies, five of the largest insurance companies, and three of the largest health care companies, and it has built strong industry expertise and process knowledge in the industries it serves. The delivery centers in China work for large banking and telecommunications companies.

“As these centers build solutions for customers, there are all sorts of things we could learn, and we would harvest that, and bring that into the SOA Solutions Centers,” MacIntyre says.

“It has happened often that the people at the delivery center doing the ‘solutioning’ for a customer come back to us and say that they have found a particular requirement from, say, 10 customers, and ask us why don’t we develop a reusable asset for it,” Cherian adds.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.