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Web services open for business

An Indiana credit union and San Diego defense contractor don't have much in common, except that both have figured out ways to build Web services and recompose them to meet diverse business processes.

Web services are supposed to be about business and, sure enough, as time passes entire businesses seem to be sprouting up around the concept of Web services.

Two companies that are embracing Web services are Forum Solutions, the IT arm of Fishers, Ind.-based Forum Credit Union, and San Diego-based DefenseWeb Technologies Inc., which builds applications for governmental and military organizations. Both companies got started in 1998 and neither one envisioned itself as a Web services developer or supplier back in those days.

Yet both have built Microsoft .NET-based Web services that have allowed them to grab business by customizing business services.

For Forum Solutions, speed turned out to be a critical element. Seven years ago, the company built something it calls Total Account Processing System (TAPS) to automate loan processing for the parent company. TAPS worked so well, cutting so much time out of the loan process, that Forum decided to sell the system to other credit unions, currently boasting 40 customers.

Most of what we have to do for a new system centers around workflow and business processes, which, as you can imagine, can get pretty complex in the military.
Doug Burke
CEODefenseWeb Technologies Inc.

Chief operating officer Cam Minges admits Web services weren't in his mind when he first built TAPS, but he eventually came to the realization the system could be broken into components and optimized to handle business services outside the standard in-house loan application.

Using .NET to build the components and InterSystems Corp.'s Ensemble product as the integration framework, Forum tackled its first major recomposition test in optimizing TAPS for the DealerTrack.com auto loan process, which submits loan applications from dealers around the country via the Internet. Previously, outside auto loans in Forum Credit were received via fax, manually entered into TAPS and responded to via fax.

Through the first eight months of 2005, Forum has seen its indirect auto loan business jump from $49.1 million last year to $129.5 million this year. Doug True, Forum's senior vice president for lending and technology, credits the jump to speed of response.

"A lot of times we're the first ones back," he said. "People don't want to sit around a dealership all day waiting for loan applications to get processed. We're in a commodity business to a certain degree, rates don't vary that much. So being the first to give an approval can be all the difference."

According to Minges, TAPS no longer cares whether a loan application is coming from the inside or the outside, and "even the decision process is a separate widget."

In fact, the ability of TAPS to automate any loan process has Forum looking to branch out into automating other business processes. It's looking to add business intelligence around new customer applications, even to process job applications.

"The process you go through on a loan application is a lot like the process you'd go through in other areas, like an employment application," Minges said. "We're now able to do the process alignment and it gets us to the perfect concept model very quickly."

Workflow, application agility unite families post-Katrina

At DefenseWeb that ability to adjust systems on the fly to meet a new set of business process requirements proved its value in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

DefenseWeb builds case management systems, Web applications and portals for various branches of the U.S. military. Most of that work has centered on family services.

The military provides social services, financial counseling, relocation services, even acts as an employment agency for the families of U.S. armed services personnel. DefenseWeb has built the systems to support that work for the U.S. Army on a .NET platform, using mostly HTTP transport, and has been able to branch those systems out to the Army and Air Force reserves and soon to the National Guard for each of those two branches, building portals to replace the sticks and bricks field offices found on military bases.

"We modularize everything so we're able to reuse much of what we build," DefenseWeb CEO Doug Burke said, DefenseWeb's CEO. "Most of what we have to do for a new system centers around workflow and business processes, which, as you can imagine, can get pretty complex in the military."

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast a few weeks ago, the Army National Guard Bureau asked if DefenseWeb could create a system where military personnel and their families could locate each other. It met that request and the system, which can be found at www.militaryfamilylocator.org, was made available to every branch of the military.

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"It took us about 20 hours to stand up this application," Burke said. "We really didn't have to build much of anything, we just had to fit what we had to the process."

Like Forum, DefenseWeb is finding that having the agility to tackle a range of problems in a timely fashion is proving to be a successful business model.

"For us it's become a matter of just showing them how we can adapt what we've done to what their needs are," Burke said.

Minges sounded a similar note, stating, "Reusability is the ingredient of the day here."

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