InformationWeek 500: Flextronics Parlays SOA Into Happier Customers

Electronics manufacturer leverages service-oriented architecture into a higher level of customer service.
Flextronics' SOA environment is a blend of SOAP and Representational State Transfer, or REST, Web services, which are lighter-weight and require lower overhead. "We evaluated REST but went with SOAP since one of the systems being integrated supported SOAP out of the box," Rao says. "We have a lot of smaller projects where REST is more appropriate, so it's not one or the other." Business requirements drive the choice of whether to use SOAP or REST, Rao says, "depending on whether the project requires agility or standardization."

To get initial buy-in from upper management for the SOA project, Rao's team first identified a process that was broken. The Global Procurement Organization, the Flextronics department that negotiates prices with suppliers, needed a single, reliable source of real-time item-pricing data, Rao says. It had been using a centralized decision-support system to store global price data. For this system to be effective, item prices had to be synchronized between the company's Baan ERP system and the DSS database. But "sometimes, the synchronization process would fail and buyers would be dealing with old price data," Rao says.

The SOA team solved the problem by mapping the business processes that involved price synchronization between ERP and DSS into the WebMethods ESB environment, which enabled the two systems to talk to each other.

"That got the attention of the business guys," Rao says. "That's when they said, 'This really works!'"

The price-synchronization project was implemented as a simple SOA process with some limited security and validation. It had the advantage of being a small, visible project that gave the SOA team the confidence to take on more complicated processes that involved more extensive SOA governance.

THINK BIG, START SMALL  Start with visible microprojects to validate the SOA architecture, as well as to get buy-in from business units and upper management. They can serve as proofs-of-concept before going on to bigger projects.
MAKE IT SUPPORTABLE Even if a technology looks good, if it can't be supported, don't implement it.
MINIMIZE SUPPORT ESCALATION  Consider using an ESB or other SOA intermediary technology to enforce IT governance of new services and minimize the SOA support-escalation process.
Flextronics has gone on to use the SOA framework to change the way it works with customers. In one case, the company used it to improve the way it does data integration for laptop repair updates with a leading global consumer electronics manufacturer. Using SOA, Flextronics converted the customer from EDI to online—near-real-time—updates. That change alone has resulted in more than a quarter of a million dollars in cost savings per year for the partnership, as well as a more committed relationship, Rao says.

Besides starting with smaller projects, Rao recommends standardizing where possible, since it's much easier to support a standardized environment in the long run. "One of our biggest themes is supportability," he says. "Even if a technology looks good, if it can't be supported, we won't implement it."

Lessons from FedEx, Schwab, eBay, and others.
That sort of measured, careful-as-you-go approach has served Flextronics well, but the company also is capable of moving fast when necessary, says CIO David Smoley. It has a very "streamlined" program management team in place, along with an agile governance structure, Smoley says. Everyone—IT and the business units alike—is "focused on speed, on making decisions quickly and moving on," he says.

All this has gone into assuring a successful SOA effort that has helped Flextronics with its Solectron acquisition and continues to let it deliver a high level of service to its customers across all channels, product lines, and geographies.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

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