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Making SOA easy to use

Quick assembly and simplified reusability ranked at the top of the list when Pearson Education installed an enterprise service bus to blend two critical collegiate course applications.

Imagine if each time you flipped a light switch you had to watch it constantly to make sure it stayed on or if you never quite knew if your bulb was fully compatible with the socket?

You might just stick with candlelight in that case.

While building a service-oriented architecture may never be as easy as flipping a light switch, ease of use would be a welcome addition for many in the marketplace. Earlier this year Pearson Education, the educational publishing subsidiary of media conglomerate Pearson Plc, wanted to build new online course registration and management services for its collegiate customers with simplicity and extensibility the priorities for the project.

The real challenge for the industry is how do you dumb down middleware and make it more accessible.
Annrai O'Toole
CEOCape Clear Software Inc.

Pearson Ed sought to blend together a student information system in Waltham, Mass., with a course management system in Reston, Va. Chief technology officer Ramana Mantravadi explained that while it was no great feat to get the two systems to swap data, blending them into a single application without extensive new coding was another matter.

Beyond that, the application had to stand up when hundreds of thousands of students this fall began to use it.

"We are taking reliability very seriously now," Mantravadi said. "We need something that's going to work without having to constantly maintain it. So even if something goes down, it doesn't affect the whole chain."

Ultimately, Pearson Ed went the enterprise service bus (ESB) route, choosing Cape Clear Software Inc. In particular, Mantravadi liked that it didn't rely on underlying messaging middleware.

"We have BPEL [Business Process Execution Language] controlling the handoffs between the two systems," he said. "Here what we're talking about is integrating application intelligence between two different systems and making them into one offering."

It now offers what it calls the Course Compass application, which handles all class support functions from registration through final grades.

"We now can support all of the mission-critical parts of the course in a single application; we have 700,000 students using the system this fall," Mantravadi said.

To date no messages have been lost by the ESB despite an 80% increase in user load on the two systems from the fall of 2004.

Simplicity in middleware happens to be Cape Clear CEO Annrai O'Toole's chief talking point.

"The real challenge for the industry is how do you dumb down middleware and make it more accessible," he said. "The stuff is too damn complicated."

For more information

Learn about how Covad conquered its fear of SOA

Read about companies that have turned Web services into a viable business model

O'Toole believes "dumb buses and intelligent endpoints" are the way integration must evolve, arguing that too many bells and whistles in the middle will only add complexity, latency and ultimately cost.

What excites Mantravadi most about the new system is the potential for easy reuse, which he called "the real business value in all of this." Now he can find new uses for his existing systems without having to send a team of Java coders into the fray.

"We are reinventing ourselves because in this climate we are forced to reinvent ourselves," he said. "We have to be able to build applications quickly and find new life for older code. Our business depends on it."

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