SOA technology changes the integration game

Companies like VP Buildings are saving time, labor and money by using technologies that expose legacy application functions as Web services in a service-oriented architecture.

It may be hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but legacy applications are a different story.

Companies are using new technologies to integrate old applications into service-oriented architectures (SOAs). Such was the case with Varco Pruden Buildings Inc., commonly known as VP Buildings, a Memphis, Tenn.-based manufacturer of steel buildings. The company handles financials and inventory with an ERP system from PeopleSoft, now owned by Redwood City-Calif.-based Oracle Corp. Issuing inventory, or recording when materials were used in a project, was becoming a labor-intensive effort and was affecting sales and purchasing processes, according to Alan Anderson, director of application development with VP Buildings. Workers were physically writing down the supplies used in a day. An inventory clerk would then manually enter the data into PeopleSoft. The manual process meant a multi-day lag time with issuing inventory, and it needed to be automated, Anderson said. Hoping to speed up and automate the process, the company first tried a traditional route.

VP Buildings went to the company that hosts and supports its PeopleSoft application remotely. The team wanted five different PeopleSoft user interfaces customized for different parts of the warehouse and shop floor, Anderson said. The hosting company estimated that it could develop one custom interface for about $175,000, making the project a much more expensive proposition than Anderson had expected.

"We could have lived with one interface, but we really wanted about five different screens," Anderson said. "But the cost alone made us say, 'OK, we'll need to put up with whatever they produce for the first one.'"

Before settling, VP Buildings looked for alternatives and found New York-based iWay Software Inc. and its SOA middleware. iWay's enterprise service bus technology could expose PeopleSoft functions as Web services. VP Buildings had experience with SOA and Web services because it manages its sales and manufacturing activities using homegrown Microsoft .NET applications, Anderson explained. The team decided to use iWay's technology for the project -- and they discovered that the SOA approach offered more benefits than they had initially realized.

Solving old problems with new technology

The VP Buildings situation is not unusual, according to Steve Garone, an independent industry analyst who is currently establishing his own firm. Companies are increasingly turning to SOA technologies to solve classic application integration problems. A broad variety of tools and standards are emerging in the SOA market, Garone said, but vendors generally fall into three categories:

  • Platform vendors, which are building SOA functions into broad platforms.
  • Tools vendors, which focus specifically on SOA, Web services and enterprise service bus technology.
  • Infrastructure vendors, which are building SOA and Web services functions into their technology suites.

Like many IT projects, the vendor choice depends on a company's specific requirements, goals and existing technology environment, Garone said. Solving a particular business or integration problem with Web services can be a good way for companies to jump-start the process of moving toward an SOA. Getting started with SOA technology sooner rather than later may accelerate competitive advantages enabled by the architectural approach, he added. But companies need to think strategically.

"If you're going to migrate and grow the SOA presence in the organization up from that initial project, you need to take a global view of the breadth and variety of resources throughout your organization that are going to have to be integrated down the line," Garone said.

VP Buildings builds on its SOA

VP Buildings implemented iWay's SOA middleware, which exposes PeopleSoft functions as Web services to its .NET architecture. The team built the five new interfaces in a Microsoft Windows form business application, which uses the .NET architecture and iWay SOA middleware to write data to the PeopleSoft application. The entire process happens in near real time, with the customized interfaces designed exactly as VP Buildings wanted. They rolled out the new system in May.

"Now we have an interactive capability to query or supply data to PeopleSoft," Anderson said. "We'll do other things that we would have avoided in the past because they would have required a custom interface."

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