British telco heading for 100% SOA model

2009 is the target date for achieving that milestone, BT's chief architect says

While many enterprises are still trying to get their arms around just what SOAs (service-oriented architectures) really are, British Telecom is nearing the end of an eight-year effort to move to an entirely SOA-based IT environment, according to W George Glass, the company’s chief architect. Glass, speaking to attendees at the recent InfoWorld SOA Executive Forum in New York, said that the company is on target to have enterprise-wide SOA by 2009, capping off a shift that began with provisioning of the company’s mainframe systems in 2001.

Glass said that BT’s effort is one of the largest SOA implementations in the world and is driven by a confluence of factors: a company decision to divide into separate lines of business to better serve customers, the construction of a £10 billion (NZ$27 billion) ubiquitous IP network across the EU, and an offer by UK telecom regulators to reduce oversight of the company in exchange for BT opening access to its network.

“All three of these required changes to our architecture to support them, and as we went down the road on each, we found the SOA approach satisfied each,” Glass said at the conference.

BT had been experimenting with SOA since 2001, when the company first started using middleware to expose mainframe functionality as web-based services, Glass said.

BT has since expanded that effort across its entire IT infrastructure, which encompasses more than 3,500 core systems, creating something called the Matrix Platform Architecture to support the shift. Matrix ties together 14 platforms with common capabilities that are reusable, and uses standards to streamline engineering and maintenance costs.

So far, BT has identified 160 “capabilities” it needs to expose, each with between five and 15 operations. For example, a “manage customer order” capability might collect information such as customer reference numbers, time and date of order, products purchased, and so on. Of those, BT has completed and deployed 63 capabilities affecting 730 systems in the past two years.

When fully complete, the transition will make it much easier for BT to build and introduce new products and services for customers by reusing common components — for example, customer identification and revenue collection — allowing the company to focus development resources just on new functionality, Glass said.

Developers who create new services rather than reuse existing ones may even risk losing up to a quarter of annual performance bonuses, Glass told InfoWorld.

The transition to SOA hasn’t always been easy: BT engineers have sometimes failed to grasp the full complexity of different capabilities, requiring them to go back in to enhance capabilities they thought were well defined.

BT also found wide disparities between documented business processes and the actual “facts on the ground” in its call centres and product groups.

Long-time BT IT employees also struggled with the demand to shift to SOA, fearing their jobs would become irrelevant.

“We had people who had been in the organisation a long time and knew a particular system inside out. They were valued for that knowledge and we were saying to them ‘We don’t value your knowledge of that system as much as we value your ability to express that.’”

Glass said the shift to SOA has already produced a 20% reduction in IT staff. The company has moved 2,000 IT staff from internal projects to customer-facing and revenue-generating roles.

By 2009, BT plans to have enough of its infrastructure shifted to an SOA model to support its core products for all its major customers.

In the end, the move to a 100% SOA environment will be hard-fought, but positive for BT: reducing IT costs and support costs for legacy and redundant applications, and focusing BT on improving business processes rather than technology, Glass said.

“I think we’re really pioneers in this.”

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