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SOA World Cover Story — Are You Being Served?

Customer-Centric SOA Management

"A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five." - Groucho Marx

 People have begun to understand that a properly implemented SOA has the potential to improve business agility and adaptability to changing business conditions, but we're still suffering from at least one innate prejudice common to IT folks. That prejudice comes, in part, from our own fascination with the technology we use. Perhaps we need to view the goals and challenges that SOA brings with the same simplicity that small children selling lemonade from a box on the sidewalk have for at least children recognize that it's neither the lemonade nor the stand that's the center of their business, but the customer. Changing our natural biases as IT people to conform to this business reality can help us understand what's most important in a SOA and how that SOA needs to evolve to be successful.

Designing Customer-Centric Business Services
It's helpful to understand SOA as a means to serve the business by serving both the internal and external business service consumer. Perhaps a more useful way to think of the business service consumer is as a business service customer. That way, we may go beyond the dutiful attention that we in IT too often extend to the customer and move him from the periphery to the center of our attention and actions.

Business services are everywhere and business was familiar with the concept long before we IT people got our hands on it. SOA architects would be well served in taking a lesson from more modest, yet proven "real-world" designs. For example, in a large, modern restaurant, the business service of "placing a lunch order" might be an aggregation of both serial and parallel business services such as initiating food preparation in the kitchen, bringing the beverage while the food is being prepared, bringing the food, placing a follow-up order for desserts and coffee, presenting the bill, and getting paid for the meal.

Notice that the descriptions of the customer facing business services that are visible to the customer are customer-centric. An IT-centric view would "accept a lunch order" rather than "place a lunch order," a small but important distinction that most restaurants, unlike IT organizations, are instinctively wise enough to avoid. The service description should always be about the customer, not the service. Most waiters don't say "I'm ready to accept an order now" because the transaction is about the customer, not the restaurant so the waiter is more likely to ask "May I take your order?" Reorienting your naming conventions to be more customer-centric, at least for customer-facing services, is left to the reader. It can be a truly useful exercise, one that can create a better, more customer-focused architecture, but I warn you the IT-focused perspective can be difficult to shake off.

Business Service Roles
It's important to realize that there are many service customers just as there are many service providers. We're intuitively aware of these two roles, at least to a degree. And of course, business service providers can also be business service customers. For example, a credit card approval business service might also be the customer of a geographic service to check if a credit card is being used outside its usual geographic area. In combination with other pattern analyses, this might help detect a stolen credit card.

However, there's at least one other role to consider, one that's often forgotten, and that's the service owner. The service owner is the business entity that bears business responsibility for that service to the customer. For example, in a restaurant the service owner might be the restaurant manager or owner, while the waiter is the part of the restaurant "infrastructure" that provides a key business service. Of course, the roles of service owner and service provider might be one and the same, but in larger businesses that is less likely. In many large businesses it's common for IT to provide a business service that's owned by a line-of-business (LOB) manager or group within the business organization such as product marketing.

Service Level Agreements
We don't always focus on satisfying our service customers as much as we should, but when we do get serious about our customers we often begin by defining a set of agreements outlining what is expected between business service provider and various business service customers under certain conditions and at certain times. These agreements are called Service Level Agreements (SLAs). SLAs can be essential to the success in a SOA.

In simple terms, a SLA is a set of expectations often referred to as Service Level Objectives (SLOs). These expectations should be measurable and reasonably attainable. Many SLOs articulate the expected reliability and availability of a business service based on calendar functions, expressing expectations for certain times of day and certain days in the week, month, quarter or even year. These expectations are often expressed in terms of the application-specific data (metrics) obtained from various components in the SOA. For example, performance and availability expectations could be expressed in terms of an acceptable range of average response times or the number of failures per hour.

What creates customer satisfaction at any restaurant? To answer that question, we should think about what makes customers different from one another. One of the most important differences is their level of expectation. Customers often have different criteria for success. The quality of the food, the pleasantness and professionalism of the wait staff, how hot the soup is, and the diversity of the wine cellar may all be contributing factors. A successful restaurant will likely need to treat the soup lover differently than the wine lover.

For that matter, does the same customer always have the same criteria for success? Customer service expectations often vary according to business circumstances. Time and day are important factors. A business lunch and a romantic dinner have different criteria for success even to the same customer. For a business lunch, rapid service might be important while the criteria for success in the later case might be quality of food and unobtrusive service. Similarly, knowing which customer is a "platinum customer" can be essential for the success of any business service. In plain language, the expectations of the customer can best be met if we know the customer's identity and have some awareness of his business transaction - its context and circumstances.

Similar criteria for success exist for SOA business services. Knowing the identity of a customer and applying a consistent security policy is a starting point, hence the necessity of cross-enterprise SOA security policy decision and federation solutions such as the popular SiteMinder and TransactionMinder products from CA, as well as identity products from Oracle and other vendors. However, besides these important identity issues, one must also provision appropriate business transaction monitoring software to help your customer business services meet their SLAs through appropriate monitoring of the actual business transactions from request to response as they flow from the customer through various levels of the SOA and the underlying infrastructure.

Different Types of Management - A Culinary Example
It's common for architects and other IT leaders responsible for SOA initiatives to underestimate the diversity, depth, and volume of the metrics needed to describe the state of their SOA and how it's serving the customer. Think of the complexity inherent even in the simple restaurant example. So many things can go wrong and larger restaurants and hotels may have many chefs and other food handlers, not to mention a wide variety of ovens, refrigerators, mixers, and other equipment.

So why might some hot dishes arrive cold and violate customer expectations? Well, monitoring the business services - like a SOA management product would - may not provide sufficient information. At the service level, it's helpful to know that all customer orders usually arrive on time. It might be possible to narrow the problem down to a particular waiter (a particular business service), but that doesn't explain why the waiter appears slow only at certain times and not at other times. Waiters can explain themselves in a way that software can't, but if the waiter couldn't speak we wouldn't be much closer to solving our problem. Think of this service-level management as just the first step, albeit an important step, towards solving the problem.

It's also helpful to know that the chefs all say that they're feeling fine and that all the ovens and stoves appear to be working. That's equivalent to traditional enterprise management - and is important information to have. The restaurant service provider will surely want to make sure that his supporting restaurant infrastructure is functioning overall. However, to understand and fix the problem, the restaurant must do more than just measure the time the order received to when the food is delivered. This information is useful and might certainly tell it that service is slow, but it usually doesn't help it understand why. It still can't solve the problem unless it can track and trace the individual transactions (the customer's individual orders) as they flow from the starting point at the table through the entire restaurant infrastructure back to the customer for consumption.

It's only by understanding and following the flow of customer transactions in the restaurant that the restaurant's management can begin to understand that one of the waiters doesn't know how to use the credit card machine properly and uses the same slow, inefficient procedure every time. This means that when the waiter processes one customer's credit card payment, the hot entrees for his other customers are cooling in the kitchen. This waiter then falls behind in taking orders and compensates by hurriedly gathering and dumping them all at once on the harried chef. In turn, this same harried chef cuts his own corners, resulting in more improperly prepared food. So, complex cascades of serious problems all emanate from one problem buried deep inside the business. And yet these events are seen as relatively rare and benign in isolation. It's only when viewed as part of the overall customer business transactions that their true impact is understood.

Customer-Centric Enterprise Application Management
If the simple problems of a restaurant seem complex and difficult to diagnose, whatever plagues the smallest IT shop can be considerably more complex to resolve. And even without considering SOA, many organizations have yet to address how they might proactively meet customer expectations regarding their existing distributed Web applications. Critical Web applications can profoundly impact customer satisfaction and relationships and yet every server supporting these applications might only appear to be running properly from a systems management perspective.

In the restaurant example, rather than wait for customers to start complaining, it would have been better to detect and understand that a problem was brewing, ideally when the waiter first experienced confusion and delay attempting to process customer payments. IT also needs to service its customers proactively rather than wait for service levels at the customer level to change. When service levels start to change so the customer can measure them, there may be very little time left to diagnose and correct the problem. Ultimately the customer experience is the only thing that really matters so you can't afford to be blind to that experience. Being blind to any level of the environment increases the risk that the deteriorated service levels will become visible and be considered a problem by both the customers and the service owners such as the line-of-business.

Again, this does not negate the importance of understanding the overall health of your IT infrastructure using systems management products. But it's common enough in complex distributed Web applications for the overall application server environment to be healthy, while a problematic piece of business logic, or a back-end system supporting that business logic, may behave inappropriately in specific transactions. For example, under certain circumstances the business logic may make a disproportionate number of calls to a database for certain transactions, just as our waiter followed inappropriate procedures when processing credit cards but not cash. How would you know this problem-in-the-making existed before your customers start phoning your help desk? How would you identify the offending components involved?

Thus one needs an additional type of management whenever applications are distributed rather than monolithic regardless of what kinds of management software is already in place. This kind of customer-oriented real-time business transaction-aware type of management is what I call customer-centric enterprise application management. To be effective, customer-centric enterprise application management must go beyond other forms of management by focusing on fine-grained, component-level knowledge of the underlying business logic, processes, and back-end resources specific to the individual business transactions as they flow through the distributed application. Furthermore, customer-centric enterprise application management must be able to correlate this fine-grained knowledge of individual transactions as they travel through the IT infrastructure with the actual customer experience. In short, we need to know if the "IT soup" is too cold. With customer-centric enterprise application management, we can understand why this is so.

Customer-Centric Enterprise SOA Management
SOA and the distributed applications based on SOA increasingly tend to be larger in scale than conventional Web applications, since they grow to incorporate and bridge formerly separate application silos and enterprise domains. So if you can't mitigate SLA violations committed by your existing Web applications, a SOA is unlikely to improve the situation. In fact, the task is more daunting with SOAs. SOAs tend to be based on more heterogeneous platforms and services that are more loosely coupled, with more subtle and indirect inter-service dependencies. More things can go wrong and it can be harder to understand why. But the approach required to meet SLAs and locate and understand problematic components is nearly the same as in the customer-centric enterprise application management used for distributed Web applications.

Effective customer-centric enterprise SOA management merely requires additional tooling on top of the customer-centric enterprise application management that extends the monitoring of the customer experience from a human on a browser using a Web application to monitoring the messages sent by the software playing the customer role and using the business service. This applies to all the services in the SOA. SOA management extensions that feed into the overall transaction awareness of customer-centric enterprise SOA management are needed to provide additional visibility for every real-time business transaction that passes through the layers of services in the SOA. The focus is the business transaction itself.

Let's look more closely at customer-centric enterprise SOA management. In most modern SOAs, high-level business services accept customer transactions. These business services might themselves transform and route customer transactions in the form of SOAP or POX (plain old XML) messages to other subordinate business services or infrastructure services. More commonly, infrastructure services such as routing and transformation might be provided by middleware such as application servers or ESBs, perhaps orchestrating a number of related business services using a BPEL engine.

Both business services and infrastructure services are most often implemented using the .NET or J2EE runtime environments that dominate the vast majority of distributed enterprise applications today. Clearly, to achieve effective management of your SOA, your customer-centric enterprise SOA management solution must have very detailed visibility into the operation of these same runtime environments since they underpin so much of the SOA's essential operation and business functionality. In fact, given the heterogeneous nature of SOAs, often made even more diverse by corporate mergers and acquisitions, it's common and certainly wise to require support for both of the major runtime environments from a customer-centric enterprise SOA management solution.

Ultimately, the lowest-level services in a SOA will pass their business transactions to even deeper object-oriented business logic, this logic again mostly based on .NET or J2EE. Furthermore, much of the object-oriented business logic written on these platforms will generate specific transactional activity in a wide range of back-end enterprise systems such as databases, CICS, and message-oriented middleware such as IBM's MQ Series.

In the end, the real goal of IT is to drive the success of each and every business transaction. So gathering and correlating information about problematic business service transactions as they travel through the SOA and its supporting IT infrastructure of middleware and back-end enterprise systems is a difficult, but absolutely necessary task for the different technical stakeholders responsible for keeping the IT side of the business running. Specific IT departments and technical stakeholders, most often operations and application support personnel, must be able to identify (triage) the offending component when it fails in order to engage the correct domain experts to fix the problem in that particular component.

More Stories By Paul Lipton

Paul Lipton is VP of Industry Standards and Open Source at CA Technologies. He coordinates CA Technologies’ strategy and participation in those areas while also functioning as part of CA Labs. He is co-chair of the OASIS TOSCA Technical Committee, and also serves on the Board of Directors of the open source Eclipse Foundation, as well as both the Object Management Group and the Distributed Management Task Force in addition to other significant technical and leadership roles in many leading industry organizations such as the OASIS, W3C and INCITS.

Lipton is also an approved US delegate to the international standards organization ISO, as a member of the subcommittee focused on international cloud standards. He is a founding member of the CA Council for Technical Excellence where he leads a team focused on emerging technologies, a Java Champion, and Microsoft MVP.

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