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Knowing When to Use Web Services

Knowing When to Use Web Services

Web services are moving from the latest buzzword to a mature and accepted technology. Mainstream companies such as Eastman Chemical, Wells Fargo, and NEC have begun deploying significant Web Services-Based Integration (WSBI) projects. Avnet Computer Marketing (Avnet CM) is one of many companies also betting heavily on Web services. This month, "Web Services in the Real World" describes Avnet CM's strategic foray into WSBI (see sidebar). We'll explore their business objectives, why they chose Web services for some parts of their architecture (and not others), and the results they achieved.

Background
Avnet Computer Marketing (Avnet CM) markets enterprise technology products from the world's premier computer manufacturers and software suppliers. Customers include value-added resellers (VARs) and enterprise customers, and Avnet CM provides them with marketing support, pricing strategies, and supplier-relationship management. Avnet CM is an operating group of Avnet, Inc. (NYSE:AVT), a Phoenix, Ariz.-based Fortune 500 company. Avnet is a technology marketing and services provider, and one of the world's largest distributors of electronic components and computer products from industry leading manufacturers.

The Challenge
Avnet CM manages Avnet's Hall-Mark e-business portal that allows customers and suppliers to configure and place orders, retrieve real-time pricing and availability information for products, and view their order status.

To provide customers and suppliers with a broad range of online services, Avnet CM needed to connect the portal to various back-end systems using a variety of protocols and file formats. "Maintaining this growing number of proprietary interfaces became untenable and prevented us from being able to respond quickly to new market opportunities," said Bud Alexander, vice president of Enterprise Integrated Solutions. He wanted to build a responsive IT infrastructure that allowed him to

  • Reduce the cost of development and maintenance by consolidating and standardizing internal system interfaces, and
  • Speed time to market by maximizing interface reuse.

    The Solution
    Alexander's strategy was to wrap applications with business-oriented WSDL interfaces, creating common business services, and then to pull data from multiple applications into one "Business Service Hub." (This is one of the usage patterns identified in the first article of this series, "Patterns in Web Services Projects"; WSJ, Vol. 3, issue 5). The goal was to consolidate interfaces and reduce the number of connections among systems. The architecture was required to maximize the potential for reuse, and the services had to be accessible from anywhere using any technology.

    With this framework in place, Alexander hoped to reduce system integration maintenance by combining and reusing connections among systems. Such a model would speed integration by reusing Web service components that were already built.

    The Architecture
    Three integrated portal applications, each developed and maintained by separate teams, provide the following capabilities to Avnet's sales force, customers, and suppliers:

  • Quote to Order: Intranet application used by Avnet sales to provide customers with product quotations and to expeditiously convert them to orders
  • Channel Connection: Customer portal that lets Avnet's authenticated VARs and customers retrieve real-time order status, leads, sales, credit history, and key performance information
  • Customer management: Internal portal that allows customer service representatives to centrally view and update customers' account information

    Avnet CM implemented the Business Service Hub with a Web services-based integration platform (see Figure 1). The portal applications communicate with this integration platform via SOAP to access data from the following back-end systems:

  • The IMS mainframe processes orders and performs other sales order management functions;
  • The operational data store (ODS) consolidates customer data to create a single view of the customer. The ODS is exposed as a simple set of Web services that aggregates information from a CRM system, database, mainframe, and external data from suppliers and manufacturers (using RosettaNet and EDI).

     

    The architecture also includes trading partner gateways for processing orders. Avnet CM currently supports RosettaNet and EDI transactions, and is planning to add a SOAP gateway in the future.

    Why Web Services?
    Avnet CM used Web services between the portal and the integration platform for the following reasons:

  • Simplicity: Even nonprogrammers are able to assemble Web service-based integration solutions using the integration platform tools. According to Alexander, "Users do not need expertise in SOAP or WSDL, so I don't need to hire senior messaging experts to develop integration services. I could put anyone on my integration team, no matter what their experience level, onto Web services projects." In addition, the portal's application server can readily consume SOAP messages. This made the integration easier, faster, and cheaper.
  • Abstraction: The portal team is organizationally separate from the IT team, which owns the back-end systems. The IT team wanted to make it easy for the portal team (and others in the future) to access information without having to know about the complexities and data formats of the back-office. "The portal content team can focus on the presentation layer and need not be proficient in databases, mainframes, and CRM systems. They simply call a Web service using whatever technology they already know," says Alexander. The contract between the teams is the WSDL interface.
  • Reusability: Reuse was critical. Other teams needed to access the same capabilities. Once a connection has been made and exposed as a Web service, it's easy to connect other applications.
  • Performance and reliability: Even though Avnet CM processes a high volume of orders from their web site, they found performance to be satisfactory. Alexander adds that they have never lost a single order.

    These reasons for using Web services are consistent with why other companies said they chose Web services for integration (see "Why Web Services Work"; WSJ, Vol. 3, issue 7). Interestingly, Alexander did not use Web services for the entire project. Specifically, his team did not use Web services between the integration layer and the mainframe and CRM systems. Instead, they used adapters and native APIs. Here's why:

  • Back-end ownership: Alexander's group is responsible for the back-end systems they are integrating with. This means they had the necessary domain expertise, had direct access to these systems, and could control the technology to access these systems. Web services, on the other hand, are better at facilitating the integration between different organizations because they provide an abstraction layer, define a contract (the WSDL interface) between the groups, and let each group use whatever technology they want to access the interface.
  • Lack of SOAP support: The mainframe's SOAP support was inadequate. The CRM systems actually consisted of four separate applications, and not every one of these had native SOAP support. On the other hand, the four systems all supported APIs and adapters.
  • Performance and reliability requirements could not be satisfied with Web services: Each service consisted of a complex set of transactions on the back end that required transactional integrity, which was managed by the integration platform.
  • No reuse required: The mainframe and CRM APIs were never meant to be accessed directly. Thus, reusing the APIs directly was not a requirement. They were instead rolled up into composite applications that were exposed to the outside world as a simpler set of Web services that were meant for reuse.

    The Results
    With Web services connecting several back-end systems with their portal applications, Avnet CM realized the following benefits:

  • Reduced cost of maintaining and extending the integration architecture by consolidating the interfaces and standardizing on Web services. Avnet CM has been able to successfully retire their proprietary interfaces (custom XML, FTP, and IP sockets) in favor of Web services.
  • Faster time to market with improved IT agility. New projects are now measured in days instead of weeks. Previously, integrating the quote-to-order application with the IMS mainframe required approximately six weeks. But, because the Web service was already built, connecting the order entry e-business system took only one day.

    What's Next
    In the future, Avnet CM will extend the Web services framework to its customers and suppliers. "Web services continue to be central to our IT strategy. The investment in our Web serviced-based integration platform allows us to take advantage of our IT investments and to deliver greater value for the company," concludes Alexander.

    Conclusion
    Companies like Avnet CM prove that Web services are maturing as an accepted technology. At the same time, it's clear that Web services are not the silver bullet to solving complex integration problems, either. The trick is figuring out when to use Web services, and when not to. Based on the ROI realized by Avnet and other customers profiled in this column, Web services, and the service-oriented architectures that support them, are increasingly becoming a key component of any successful company's integration strategy.

    SIDEBAR
    Avnet CM turns to Web Services

    Customer: Avnet Computer Marketing is an operating group of Avnet, Inc. (NYSE:AVT), a Phoenix, Ariz.-based Fortune 500 company. Avnet is a technology marketing and services provider and one of the world's largest distributors of electronic components and computer products from industry leading manufacturers.

    Challenge: Consolidate and standardize application interfaces; implement a service-oriented integration architecture to speed time to market.

    Solution: Avnet's e-business portal allows customers and suppliers to configure and place orders, retrieve real-time pricing & availability information, and view their order status. Web Services-Based Integration (WSBI) feeds the portal with data from various back-end systems.

    Why Web Services: Avnet chose WSBI primarily for three reasons:

    • Simplicity
    • Reusability
    • Abstraction
    Key Business Benefits: By using WSBI, Avnet benefits from:
    • Reduced development and maintenance cost
    • IT agility
    • Faster time to market
  • More Stories By Michael Blank

    Michael Blank is a founding member of webMethods, Inc. and was its first software engineer. During his tenure, he has started and commercialized several product offerings. As director of developer marketing, he manages webMethods’ developer communities as well as the software evaluation program (http://evals.webmethods.com).

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