Enhanced SOA

Business process management closes gaps in service-oriented environments

OFFICIALS AT THE U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command didn't set out to implement a service-oriented architecture. They just wanted a way to more efficiently exchange data with the military services, Reserves, National Guard, and other federal and state agencies.

The command processes and qualifies individuals applying for military service and must communicate with recruiting facilities, the FBI, state motor vehicle departments, the Social Security Administration and medical laboratories.

An aging system hampered the command's ability to exchange data efficiently, so in early 2006, officials wanted to upgrade and turned to a service provider that offered to develop code to facilitate data exchange, said Kevin Moore, the command's chief information officer.

After closer scrutiny, however, the information technology staff decided that developing code was not the way to go. A better route would be to develop a service that could be reused to reduce costs without having to develop new applications for the existing system. That required a SOA environment.

Command officials didn't have the time to replace the existing system, Moore said, and decided to 'come into the current environment using leading-edge technology and services.' Depending on the SOA solution, they could model business processes and change them on the fly to meet future requirements.

'So what you see on this SOA implementation is taking into consideration our current business processes and, as a result of the SOA technology, we are able to change our business processes,' Moore said. 'Our next step is to re-engineer our core business processes to be completely virtual.'

Working with a systems integrator that helped implement Oracle's business process management (BPM), SOA application server and database software, the command deployed a fully functional SOA capable of exchanging existing data with any business partner 18 months after the start of the project.

The SOA environment, which has been running for a year, has paved the way for new features and interfaces, Moore said.

Industry experts say that as organizations seek to share more data and services internally and among partners, they are finding that BPM and SOA are co-dependent. Working in sync, the two disciplines can help agencies align business requirements and functions with their IT strategies. As a result, agency business analysts and IT practitioners need to understand the strategic relationship between enterprise architecture, BPM and SOA, experts say.

Additionally, more business modeling and analysis tools work with SOA technologies to bring business requirements down to the IT system level where they can be deployed as services.

A match made in heaven

'There is a value proposition associated with the marriage of SOA and business processes,' said Melvin Greer, a senior research engineer at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technologies Office. SOA can be a key enabler for aligning technology with an organization's mission function, but only when SOA is linked with business processes can an agency reap tangible benefits from a process and flexibility perspective, he said.

BPM is a discipline that governs business processes, with the goal of improving the agility and operational performance of those processes, Greer said.

There are several entry points for launching a SOA implementation, including BPM; enterprise service buses, which integrate applications and services; or SOA governance, Greer said.

Enterprise architecture, BPM and SOA working in concert are the necessary ingredients to ensuring alignment between business and IT strategies and a more effective IT environment, Greer said.

Adherence to a SOA should alleviate a lot of the trials and tribulations developers have experienced in the past, said Ken Knueven, federal programs manager at Microsoft.

'If you look at it from a business process management or modeling standpoint, it is a match made in heaven,' he said. BPM breaks down the functional components of a business in layman's terms to the level of deliverable services. Those services could represent functions, processes or tasks.

The IT architects and application developers can transform those concepts into deployable services. It is not a new paradigm but the next iteration of modeling, he said.

Microsoft offers several products that include workflow capabilities. Office Share- Point Server provides collaboration, content management and BPM capabilities; BizTalk Server facilitates data exchange by connecting systems inside and across organizations; and Visual Studio has advanced modeling capabilities.

'If you look at the next generation'we want to basically integrate business modeling tools with development tools, which will ultimately deploy actual code,' Knueven said. Government workers could then describe their functional areas from a modeling perspective, and developers could integrate that information into tools such as Visual Studio, he added.

'We shouldn't be modeling for the sake of modeling,' he said. 'Otherwise, organizations will have a lot of Etch-A-Sketch diagrams that are meaningless and don't help developers build systems.' BPM tools can connect applications to a single repository to capture all that information in one place, Knueven said.

BPM helps define the services that are truly valuable, and without it, those services can suffer from a lack of focus, said Greg Carter, chief technology officer and executive vice president of product development at Metastorm, a provider of BPM and enterprise architecture software.

'The key standard you should be looking at with SOA is: In what format can I put data coming out of my services [so] that it can be consumed by the widest possible audience?' Carter said.

El Paso County, Colo., is using Metastorm's BPM Suite to develop workflow diagrams that link to an imaging system under development, said Bill Miller, the county's CIO. The imaging system will let real estate developers check on the status of projects.

Future direction

Another approach that will likely be of importance to the government is dynamic BPM, said Frank Stein, program director of IBM's Federal SOA Institute. Dynamic BPM adds complex event processing to the mix, so the technology can keep track of business changes to adapt to new opportunities or catch problems.

For example, IBM WebSphere Business Monitor lets organizations measure business process performance, monitor current and completed processes, and report on business operations. It can track activity from IBM and non-IBM applications that manage business event processing, enterprise service buses, modeling, SOA appliances and workflow.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Map Modernization program, a five-year-old program to modernize the country's flood maps, used IBM's BPM Suite on a SOA foundation to implement a mapping workflow, said Kristen Heavener, project manager of FEMA's Mapping Information Platform.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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