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Q&A: Amtrak's SOA Offers Better Connections

Amtrak runs on legacy mainframes. To get up to date and serve multiple distribution channels without ripping and replacing, the railroad has embarked on integration and services-oriented architecture initiatives. Thomas Krotchko, director, Web architecture, explains why it's now easier to integrate, change apps and forge partnerships.

Thomas Krotchko

Two years ago, Amtrak tapped WebMethods to help it with enterprise application integration (EAI) and services-oriented architecture (SOA). What was the impetus for the project?

We knew we needed middleware because we had a layer of distribution channels that we needed to protect against changes in our core system. We didn't want our call centers, station-based ticketing operations and Web site chasing changes in our host system all the time. And by the same token, we didn't want to have to change the host system all the time because one of the distribution channels needed some new feature set added.

That sounds like services-based integration. Where does SOA come in?

The impetus for the project was really the EAI portion. We wanted to be able to pull things together pretty easily and make it work without people worrying about the plumbing behind the scenes. We see EAI as taking the complexity away.

As for SOA, a lot of people say "I have a bunch of services, so now I have my SOA." We didn't see that as enough to form a true SOA. It's certainly services-oriented, but we could have used Web services for integration without doing any kind of SOA. We saw the SOA as defining an API for the business; it's a complete set of services that spells out the way you do business.

Amtrak now has a service that determines whether there are seats available on a particular train. Another service tells you how much those seats cost. If you want to book it, another service will ask for your credit card number. There are thousands of commands buried in our old mainframe system, but we came up with 22 services that could support most of Amtrak's business. Those services taken together form the SOA.

Amtrak.com was one of the first and biggest benefactors. Can you describe that success?

Amtrak.com was a tiny part of the business just a few years ago, but now it's the largest distribution channel. Forty percent of our revenue come through our Web site, so the fact that we've moved the bulk of our revenue over to this services platform is a big deal.

How does SOA change your ability to work with travel partners?

That's one area where we're really changing the business. Historically when we've tried to interact with business-to-business partners, it was difficult because we had this giant mainframe host. We've had some fairly large travel sites try to connect to us, and they gave up after a few months saying, "it's just too hard." In November we announced that we're partnering with Wandrian to build an international travel agency Web site. That's exciting because it's our prototype. It's our proof to the business that connecting to external partners is going to be easy. The hardest part is not going to be the technology, it's going to be coming up with the business process that works.

You've said that even small projects used to take six to 12 months and cost millions of dollars. What's your experience today?

It used to take us six weeks just to do estimates when we had to touch the mainframe. We're in transition and educating our internal customers and partners on how to spell out their business requirements, but we think we'll be able to get B2B partners hooked up in 30 days or less.

Outtakes

Favorite Travel Destination? My family enjoyed a trip to New York last year to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. New York really dresses up for the holidays, so it's a nice time to go.

Favorite activities? Between kids and their activities, we manage to stay busy as a family. I'm active in the martial arts as a fun way to stay in shape and relax after work.

Favorite book? My tastes run the gamut, and I have books piled around my home office. "The Curve of Binding Energy" by John McPhee is dated, but an interesting read. "Hyperion" by Dan Simmons is a science fiction favorite.