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Software's Next Step

Services-oriented architectures are being embraced by business-technology specialists charged with creating more-efficient IT infrastructures

At the New York Board of Trade, prices of cotton, sugar, and other commodities can rise or fall a hundredth of a cent per pound--not much, until you consider that trades sometimes involve hundreds of thousands of pounds. In the few seconds it takes for a transaction to get executed, the price can change, and traders don't always know whether they made money or lost it. Until recently, it could take as long as two hours to get a preliminary confirmation that a trade was completed at a given price and even longer before the final outcome was verified.

Many pieces of the New York Board of Trade's systems were tied together, says David Sternberg, director of clearinghouse systems at the New York Board of Trade.

Many pieces of the New York Board of Trade's systems were tied together, Sternberg says.

Photo by Walter Smith
That lag largely disappeared a few weeks ago, when the Board of Trade switched from end-of-day batch processing to a new way of linking the systems involved in processing trades, cutting reporting times to 30 minutes. To do it, the Board of Trade created a services-oriented architecture that facilitates data sharing among the many systems involved in completing a transaction: its four trading systems, back-end accounting servers, clearinghouse system, and the computers of 39 trading partners. "A lot of pieces in each system were tied together," says David Sternberg, director of clearinghouse systems at the New York Board of Trade.

Services-oriented architectures promise IT efficiency and flexibility in the form of reusable software "services." The concept, a few years in making, is hitting the mainstream now that commercial support for Web services is widespread. Yet the approach requires planning and know-how--services-oriented architectures are custom built, not bought. IT departments assemble them using a combination of development tools, XML-messaging middleware, other software standards, and management products. In the process, older applications may need to be reformatted for the services model.

Citigroup Asset Management, the institutional and managed-account investment arm of Citicorp, recently implemented a services-oriented architecture to hasten its handling of repurchase agreements, or "repos." The financial firm processes only 200 repos a day, but they're worth about $5 billion. The trades must be completed by 3 p.m. Eastern or "you miss the market, the customer loses the interest [on the investment], and Citigroup loses face with its client," says Sayee Bapatla, director of technology planning at Citigroup Asset Management.

Until recently, Citigroup's business logic was all over the place in legacy systems, says Sayee Bapatla, director of technology planning at Citigroup Asset Management.

Until recently, Citigroup's business logic was "all over the place" in legacy systems, says Bapatla, director of technology planning.

Photo by Sacha Lecca
Until two months ago, Citigroup employees manually entered repurchase-agreement orders into legacy systems with "business logic all over the place," says Bapatla. Completing an order was "a very convoluted process, touching 80 to 90 systems"--IBM mainframes, Unix and Windows servers--using middleware from IBM, SeeBeyond, and Tibco Software. A weakness in the process was the transfer of order files via the File Transfer Protocol, since that lacked the asynchronous nature of Citigroup's new approach. If a file didn't transfer successfully by FTP, Citigroup repo managers had little means of knowing and risked missing a trade. Now, however, an XML-based message is transferred between systems and receipt is automatically confirmed; if not, a request that the message be resent is triggered to the sender.

"It's completely eradicated the old way of doing things," Bapatla says. In addition, business-process monitoring software from CommerceQuest Inc. audits each business process along the way to spot any disruptions. A real-time message audit eliminates the prospect that a failed trade will lose revenue for a client by missing the deadline. Services-oriented architecture "is so key," Bapatla says.

It's no coincidence that services-oriented architectures are maturing at the same time that businesses are doing other housekeeping. Because they encompass auditable business-process management, services-oriented architectures can help companies achieve compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and other regulatory requirements. Analyst Stephen O'Grady with IT research firm RedMonk refers to the idea as a "compliance-oriented architecture." For example, electronic-record retention could be manifest as a software service that's reused whenever saving records is a requirement, O'Grady writes in a recent report.

Despite the fact that they bring a greater degree of order to IT environments, services-oriented architectures have to be managed and maintained (see story, Scalable: Managing Web Services Demands New Approach). They also create new security risks: Since Internet-accessible software components are fundamental to services-oriented architectures, any oversight could expose systems to outside threats. To avoid that, software architects are using the HTTPS protocol, which encrypts messages and documents being sent over HTTP, the new Web Services Security standard, and IP filtering.

To secure a 6-month-old architecture that opens its systems to business partners, Aeroplan is using an appliance from Reactivity Inc. that parses XML messages, making sure they come from known trading partners and contain no hidden instructions. Aeroplan is the frequent-flier program administrator for Air Canada, its parent company, and a loyalty program supplier to American Express and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, a Visa card issuer. Its rewards programs let credit-card users accumulate miles for purchases made with their cards, then redeem them for freebies such as hotel stays or car rentals.

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