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Aetna gives its SOA a clean bill of health

Architects for the consumer-directed healthcare SOA platform at Aetna drew lessons for the software from the way their company offers insurance.

Advocates for SOA preach that IT must align with business goals and architects must design Web services to do what the business processes require.

Sean Hickman, senior architect at Aetna Inc., says his company has taken this one step farther where the way the IT works on the SOA platform for the company's consumer-directed healthcare program is based in part on health insurance philosophy.

 We think it is imperative that the central services organization continues architecting services throughout the enterprise.
Sean Hickman
Senior ArchitectAetna Inc.

"Aetna is a pioneer in consumer-directed healthcare," he explained at the recent Burton Catalyst Conference in San Francisco. "Over the years as consumer-directed healthcare has come out into the marketplace, we've seen parallels between consumer-directed healthcare and things that we can take from consumer-directed healthcare and apply to service-oriented architecture."

The SOA platform that Hickman works on provides Aetna healthcare policy holders with information such as comparative pricing information on physician services and hospital care.

"The members are given tools and information to make better decisions," Hickman said of the Web services he helps design. "Recently Aetna made an announcement where they're going to make available pricing information on hospitals and doctors online so members can use that information to make decisions. So you can see the theme of information and making decisions."

In its IT department, Aetna has a central services organization where Hickman and other architects design, build, test and support common services. But that does not always mean that the developers drawing on those services for individual applications are making the best choices, Hickman said.

Just as a medical insurance consumer might end up paying too much for a procedure if they do not have accurate pricing information on clinics in their area, an IT developer without enough information on a Web service might also make a costly choice.

For all the advantages of reuse in SOA, Hickman argued that sometimes uninformed reuse can create a problem. He offered the example of a developer who employs an existing service that can do everything he needs and more. Yet selecting a service that does more than you need may not be a good choice or an informed choice.

"If the service is only going to be called a hundred or a thousand times a day, that's not a problem," he said. "But if the service is going to be called a lot more or usage characteristics of the service change dramatically, that can become a real capacity issue. It would be better if we had a services tuned to the specific needs."

To avoid this, the central services group at Aetna is supplying developers with information about Web services in order to help them make more informed choices. And just as the company's consumer directed healthcare plan seeks to empower healthcare consumers, IT consumers are empowered to make modifications to Web services to make them more cost effective.

The result is what Hickman calls "consumer-directed, service-oriented architecture."

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"What we find, and this is early in the effort, is some of the responsibilities move to the consumer," Hickman said. "In this case, we'll think of the consumer as the project team that will use the service. The consumer takes on some of the responsibilities for delivering a service. That takes some of the burden away from the central organization. However, we think it is imperative that the central services organization continues architecting services throughout the enterprise. We also think it's important that they continue to build services as appropriate, but not every service or not every part of every service."

As is usually the case in implementing SOA, this has meant a change in the way departments within an enterprise think and operate.

"We're not as ridged as when we started when everything about the service had to originate in our organization," Hickman said. "We let the consumer build the mediation in some situations. We let the consumer build the transformation in some situations. And very rarely we may even let the consumer do some aggregation."

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