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SOA helps energy company keep the lights on

SOA projects help CenterPoint Energy with both state deregulation and new federal regulations.

In concept SOA helps business IT quickly respond to rapid changes in the business environment, and Mary Rich, manager of IT solutions delivery for CenterPoint Energy Inc., is working to prove that concept.

We do 500,000 transactions a day and you cannot afford to manually handle those errors.
Mary Rich
Manager of IT Solutions DeliveryCenterPoint Energy Inc.

The Houston-based natural gas and electricity provider is faced with a double whammy of dealing with a deregulated while coping with new government-mandated business reporting requirements.

Rapid change hit CenterPoint in 2002 when the Texas legislature deregulated the state's electric industry, Rich said. Before that the company had been a regulated utility where the business processes were fairly straightforward. It generated power, pumped natural gas, delivered it to customers, read meters, sent out bills and collected money. It was a business model that served five million metered gas and electric customers producing $10 million in annual revenues for CenterPoint.

In one of those government Catch-22s, deregulation actually brought new regulations. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC), seeking to avoid chaos as gas and electric companies competed for customers, set new requirements for billing processing. The PUC set new transaction protocol standards that were new to CenterPoint and required use of EDI, which its legacy transaction processing systems didn't natively support.

Rich was faced with finding a way to meet the PUC requirements while maintaining a system that processes 4 million transactions per month. She needed to integrate CenterPoint's legacy systems and also communicate beyond the enterprise to other utility retailers and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in the deregulated environment.

To do this, Rich began an integration and incremental service-oriented architecture implementation based on products from SeeBeyond Technology, Inc., and now from Sun Microsystems Inc., which acquired SeeBeyond last August. She also hired consultants from Accenture Inc. to help with the creation of a Transaction Management Hub that handles not only the transactions, data transfer, legacy interfaces, but also the new business process rules and reporting required by the new regulations.

As an example of how something as routine as catching and fixing errors, which was done manually prior to deregulation, can impact business in the brave new world of deregulation, Rich points to one facet of the Sun/SeeBeyond implementation. Two modules of the integrated Sun and SeeBeyond technologies, now marketed as Sun's Java Composite Application Platform Suite (Java CAPS) 5.1 release, are helping CenterPoint meet new PUC dictates that errors be processed more rapidly.

"We do 500,000 transactions a day and you cannot afford to manually handle those errors," she said.

The Sun SeeBeyond eVision Studio module in Java CAPS provides a Web-based graphical user interface for composite applications, so end users have a quick view of business processes and backend systems. Sun SeeBeyond eBAM Studio is a Business Activity Monitoring tool with dashboards with real-time alerts for exception or errors.

Rich credits those two modules with cutting in half the manual time for fixing errors.

"We gave our [internal] clients the ability to actually go in, look at each individual sets of transactions, find out how many erred out and even do a workflow with those where they could go in and fix those transactions online," she said. "Where before it was all manual, with e-mails here and e-mails out there, and somebody would take a transaction and put it back in. The way that the new architecture was laid out, it gave us the ability to do all that stuff behind the scenes and [time-wise] we literally reduced by about 50% on fixing errors."

Eliminating errors and speeding transaction processing also helps because with the new regulations, the PUC can fine energy companies that take too long to get those jobs done, she said. She credits the implementation of eVision and eBAM modules with helping CenterPoint stay within PUC rules.

"It gave us the ability to stay within those protocols and not to face fines from the PUC," she said.

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Rich is now looking at a further SOA implementation using Java CAPS that would help CenterPoint reduce the $5 million in annual costs for auditing financial applications as part of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, the federal government contribution to changing the business environment. The SOA implementation would monitor financial applications, basically keeping track of who did what and when and producing the reports auditors require.

"We just did the proof of concept," Rich said. "We did it all with service-oriented architecture so we could reuse it for different apps and it only took us about a week to do that whole thing."

Following the proof of concept the project is now in budget review within CenterPoint, but Rich expects that because of the potential cost savings of automating auditing, she expects it to go forward.

"I look for them to have a bunch of the financial apps monitored before the end of the year," she said.

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