Coders face nontech hurdles

LOS ANGELES (09/26/2003) - Technology issues are only one of the hurdles confronting companies that are adopting or considering a service-oriented approach for their development work.

IT managers attending Gartner Inc.'s Application Development Summit in Los Angeles this week said they face equal if not greater challenges in marshalling their personnel and processes as they lay the foundations for service-oriented architectures.

"For a large shop with a variety of tools, how do you get standardization in development efforts? How do you make people receptive to all these changes? How do you put some order in the process?" asked Ulma Gonzalez, director of the application development division in the e-government department of Miami-Dade County in Florida.

Gonzalez said the county has just started down a service-oriented path in its mission to deliver Web applications that it hopes will make it easier for the county's citizens to interact with their government. Developers are being asked to provide speedier delivery of those applications, which draw information from legacy systems, she said.

The service-oriented development approach holds great promise in that regard, since programmers shouldn't need to start from scratch. A developer can expose a legacy application through standards-based interfaces and create a software component or service to represent a piece of functionality that can be accessed programmatically. Files that describe the services and how to connect to them can be stored in a registry.

Developers can turn to the registry to see which services are available and use tools to ease the process of linking to them. The ultimate goal is to be able to assemble loosely coupled applications, rather than writing lots of code for tightly coupled applications.

One of the presumptions in the service-oriented approach is code reuse. But IT shops that have been trying for years to achieve that goal are aware of the uphill battle they face. "To get the mind-set change to go out and look for existing code runs contrary to the traditional approach, which is to do it yourself," said one application developer at a financial firm, who asked not to be identified.

"We have good developers who look for those opportunities, but others simply do what they have to do to get by," said Chuck Howard, a Waco, Texas-based development services manager at Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. "Unless you (give) people (an incentive) to do it, they're not going to do it."

Gartner analyst Michael Blechar said one approach is to reward programmers in the form of bonuses during annual performance reviews. But the more effective tack for some clients has been punishment for not reusing code, he said.

Another incentive program to encourage developers to write reusable code is a chargeback system, Blechar said. The business unit that funds and creates the code can be credited when another unit reuses it.

One large banking institution logged more than US$2 million per year in chargebacks from business units reusing its components, according to Blechar. In return, those groups received tested and proven code that required zero development time.

But before considering an elaborate incentive system, many companies are merely trying to get the IT and business sides of the house to both back a service-oriented architecture. Although many companies have been experimenting with Web services, few have mandated a service-oriented approach for the majority of their development work.

"If it's going to be the priority, it has to come from the top down," said Howard, noting that his company has taken a service-oriented approach only in isolated cases to date.

Vida Wong, an IT director at Farmers Insurance Group in Simi Valley, Calif., said one challenge will be finding a business sponsor who understands the value of the service-oriented approach and identifying services such as payment document imaging. Farmers is in the process of laying the foundation for a service-oriented architecture.

Chuck Kellum, an Indianapolis-based senior technology analyst at Mid-States Corporate Federal Credit Union, said his company started an initiative to overhaul its entire application infrastructure with the hope of gaining greater flexibility, reliability and scalability. With a service-oriented architecture, the IT department will be able to redesign how it supports the business processes and enable change in the processes themselves, he said.

"The challenge is working with the business owners to identify what's going to remain the same and what's going to change," Kellum said.

Wyette Spotts, manager of application services at Universal Underwriters Group in Overland Park, Kan., said his company hasn't had an overarching development strategy and the switch to a service-oriented architecture will represent a culture shift.

Spotts said he and some of his colleagues have been cautious about change because their systems have been working reliably. But Spotts said he can see how the company would benefit from eliminating redundant processes and being able to quickly introduce new products as the business dictates.

SIDEBAR

Merrill Lynch Talks Up Web Services

LOS ANGELES

Programming experience in Java or C# aren't the only job skills that might be helpful for an IT manager plotting a service-oriented development strategy.

IT executives at New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., an early adopter of Web services, have found that communications skills are especially important to spread the word about the Web services they're hoping their colleagues will put to good reuse.

"What it really comes down to is marketing," said Jim Crew, director of strategic infrastructure and distributed services (IDS). "You have to be an effective marketer because you've got to get your message out."

Code reuse is one of the key benefits that a company can gain by adopting a service-oriented architecture, and Crew said his group has seen significant reuse, even though it doesn't have a formal strategy for publicizing its work.

The firm's asset management group, for instance, learned of the work that Crew's IDS department had done using a homegrown X4ML tool to expose CICS applications through Web services interfaces during a "lunch-and-learn" session, which the company routinely holds on a wide range of topics, including non-IT issues.

The asset management IT group subsequently invited its IDS colleagues to do a presentation about their Web services and intranet-based X4ML directory. The group later found services that it decided to use to gain access to more up-to-date data.

Merrill Lynch IT groups also have held technology boot camps, workshops, expositions and demonstrations and have e-mailed newsletters to keep their IT colleagues abreast of their Web services work.

Another key factor in the success of a service-oriented development effort is the commitment of the CIO or chief technology officer as well as having key sponsors on the business side, said Gafar Lawal, director of the data and technology architecture group at Merrill Lynch.

Even though the initial champion of Merrill Lynch's Web services efforts, CTO John McKinley, left the company earlier this year, the effort hasn't lost any steam, according to the firm's IT executives. John Cummings, the new chief information and services officer, picked up the torch and continues to support the service-oriented approach, they said. "John leaving didn't really change much for us, because everybody had already (committed) at the higher level that this is the right direction to go," Lawal said.

Lawal himself has been instrumental in driving one of Merrill Lynch's most ambitious Web services projects, a wealth management system the company is co-developing with The Thompson Corp. Thompson, which is responsible for the Web front end, gains access to Merrill's back-end systems through a Web services framework.

To further the cause, Lawal said he compelled about 80 colleagues to participate virtually in an integration framework specification group that focuses on technology for the wealth management system.

-- Carol Sliwa

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