Plug and Play Meets Process - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

Plug and Play Meets Process

Service-oriented approaches have helped Owens & Minor, TransUnion, Pfizer and MasterBrand Cabinets build processes quickly and affordably

Imagine if no two DVD connections were the same, and you had to rewire your sound system and big-screen TV setup every time you wanted to watch a DVD. The process of preparing to watch a movie would be decidedly unpleasant.

This scenario sounds ridiculous, but for years, businesses have put up with similar difficulties when working with the systems that support business processes. They've built custom interfaces to integrate monolithic applications, and more often than not, they've still ended up with human workarounds to bridge process disconnects.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA), based on loosely coupled application components using standardized Web services interfaces, can help simplify application integration and process management. "If you want to have more flexible, adaptive business processes, move your IT applications to SOA," says Meta Group analyst Janelle Hill.

Fast and Agile

The term "Web services" caused a fair amount of confusion when it surfaced in the late 1990s. Many assumed the term meant delivering business services via the Web. Instead, it referred to distributed application components that were built on Web technologies. The grand idea behind Web services was that organizations would be able to compile loosely coupled applications from different sources. Companies could deliver and retrieve service components as needed over the Internet, using WSDL (Web services directory language) to describe them, UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration) to find them and SOAP (simple object access protocol) to message between them, with extensible XML making everything work together.

Early adopters actually found a better use for Web services, developing and deploying them inside the enterprise (as "network services") to serve two valuable roles. First, the relatively lightweight and simple protocols of XML make Web services ideal as a component-based architecture for companies modernizing their IT environments. Second, Web services facilitate application integration, letting companies create new and composite applications more quickly and, therefore, automate and improve processes more easily.

Owens & Minor, a Glen Allen, Va., distributor of medical and surgical supplies, had modernization in mind when it undertook a four-year project to transform its IT infrastructure into an SOA. The project was initiated, says David Guzman, senior vice president and CIO, because legacy applications built on '70s and '80s technologies couldn't be easily customized or recoded as the company tried to add business services such as supply chain management and on-site staffing.

The company considered installing an ERP package, but Guzman and others knew that replicating the custom functionality provided by those legacy applications would be a monstrous effort. Instead, the company used application modernization software from Relativity that analyzes legacy code, identifies underlying business rules and helps rearchitect the software as network services. The project was completed in 2004, and the services now run on BEA application servers.

In the course of the SOA project, Owens & Minor recognized that it was creating not only a modern enterprise architecture, but also a multitiered, component-based environment that would improve processes. The company looked for a tool that would help it orchestrate those components and, in early 2004, deployed Fuego's BPM suite. Fuego was chosen, says Guzman, for its ability to help the company design processes, write code for integration and monitor automated processes.

To gain experience with the new BPM tool, Owens & Minor targeted two noncritical processes and a third process that, according to Guzman, was so broken that the business staff would welcome any improvement.

This third process, called the debit memo process, entailed pulling expiring products from warehouses and, if possible, returning them to manufacturers for credit. Previously, the company's Manugistics supply chain system generated an inventory report that indicated which products were nearing expiration. The report was sent to each of Owens & Minor's 42 national warehouses, where staff would manually locate every item, contact headquarters for the manufacturers' return policies, and determine which products could be returned. These employees would then contact the manufacturers to obtain return authorizations, create return orders in a separate warehouse management system and notify accounts payable to expect a credit.

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