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9/12/2006
07:44 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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A New Path To SOA: Follow The Customer Data

If you get enough smart people in a room, one thing becomes clear: There's a simpler way to SOA. At the IW 500 conference, some smart people chose a customer- and data-centric path to their service orientation.

If you get enough smart people in a room, one thing becomes clear: There's a simpler way to SOA. At the IW 500 conference, some smart people chose a customer- and data-centric path to their service orientation.One path to SOA is through a sophisticated messaging system infrastructure from a commercial vendor--an enterprise service bus from a Tibco, IBM, or BEA Systems or Sonic Software.

Another is a lighter, cheaper approach through Web services, frequently starting out with open source code components such as Apache Axis, Apache ServiceMix, Mule, or LogicBlaze's Fuse. JBoss will soon join the list.

A third approach is more data-centric, building a data repository around some key aspect of the business and then letting a bunch of services be built on it as the sole source of the truth.

In a birds-of-a-feather session Sept. 12 at the InformationWeek 500 conference, spokesmen for retailer Tiffany & Co. said they got started by building an enterprise master customer data repository and building Web services on top of it.

Tiffany is a user of Microsoft Windows servers, SQL Server databases, and Visual Studio .Net technologies, but it was convinced by IBM that IBM Global Services consultants would be the right guides to getting started in SOA. Once under way, Tiffany put Microsoft representatives on IBM's consulting guidance committee. Tiffany wanted to make sure neither party ended up blaming the other if something went wrong. Microsoft was also asked to train Tiffany employees on how to build out its SOA further.

Nothing went wrong. With its new master customer data repository, it's able to deliver fast services to a point of sale, responding to the swipe of a customer credit card. It can also deliver the elements of a customer's history to Tiffany's call center as a call comes in with a customer question or complaint.

A couple of architectural points: Tiffany had wanted to build a master customer data system before it decided on any particular services, so there was nothing to argue about there. Once the master customer data was available, services naturally followed. Web services aren't the right answer for everyone, but for Tiffany no single customer was generating such a high volume of transactions or customer calls per day that it would strain the system. In this low-volume setting, Web services worked just right.

Another data-driven approach to SOA was exhibited by this year's first-place finisher in the InformationWeek 500, Principal Financial Group. CIO Gary Scholten says his firm has been able to generate services needed by Principal's small and medium-sized business customers by building master customer data files on them. Since many of its retirement investment services are sold by independent benefit counselors, it built master affiliate files as well.

That helped Principal build services that let an employee at a small company log in to one application to get a view of all his or her accounts. It built relationships by offering individualized investment advice, giving Principal a high retention ratio as employees retire or change jobs, a decision zone that often has individuals shifting accounts away from their employer's 401K. Principal was able to raise its retention rate for these "at risk" accounts from percentages in the low 50s to the high 70s, Scholten told a Sept. 12 session of the IW 500 conference that focused on how the No. 1 company managed its technology.

By concentrating on their most valuable data, which many companies find hard to master, these two companies found their surest path to a service orientation.

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