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SOA, Web services and BPEL converge at AT&T subsidiary

Needing to enhance audit compliance for its application management business, software engineers at AT&T's newly acquired USi subsidiary moved from traditional workflow to a combination of SOA, Web services and BPEL.

Sneakerware is no longer getting the application management job done for Mike Rulf, vice president of advanced engineering at USinternetworking Inc. (USi), so in recent months he has hit on an SOA approach combining Web services and BPEL.

It shows me the process flow that was taken, who did what when, how the data changed, what the results were all along the process.
Mike Rulf
Vice President of Advanced EngineeringUSinternetworking Inc.

Acquired this fall by AT&T, USi is an Application Service Provider (ASP), hosting ERP applications, including Oracle Application Suite as well as applications from Oracle's PeopleSoft, J.D. Edwards and Siebel acquisitions. Besides providing the data center and hardware for its Fortune 1000 customers, Rulf says the key value USi provides is application management and help desk support.

In an era when government regulation requires greater auditing of management functions, such as provisioning and identity management, Rulf said he found that traditional workflow processes, including manual steps involving sneakerware were not up to the job.

"We started looking at all these audited processes we had," he explained. "For example, as you are going through the provisioning process you have a task that is 'I needed to get an IP address for the server I'm provisioning.'"

In Rulf's example of how that part of the provisioning process worked in the old world, there was a guy who "burned sneakers" going around shepherding it. He'd walk into the network department and say, "Please assign an IP address to these three servers we're provisioning for this customer." A network administrator would say, "Okay I'll put it in my inbox and get back to you in a couple hours." As soon as the provisioning shepherd left the room, the network administrator would write a Perl script, run the script to assign the IP address, go out and get a cup of coffee, do a couple other network tasks, before filling out the paper work and handing it back to the provisioning shepherd."

The network administrator consumed that extra time before getting back to the provisioning shepherd, Rulf said, "Because he didn't want him to know how easy it was to write and run the script."

To anyone suspicious of this anecdote, Rulf said that when he talks to IT professionals from other companies, he gets lots of nodding heads and nervous laughs. Some tell him, "Yeah, that's exactly how it works in our company."

Of course, it doesn't work very efficiently and the paperwork it produces as each department signs off on the forms carried around the building creates a voluminous audit trail that auditors must pore through when they come to check to see if provisioning is following the regulations. That was what motivated Rulf to replace traditional workflow processes, including sneakerware with a combination of SOA, Web services, and BPEL (Business Process Execution Language).

"You can almost think of BPEL as workflow on steroids," he said. In the multiple steps of provisioning a customer, the BPEL coordination engine manages the interactions between the various systems as tasks are completed and the next task in line is begun, until provisioning is completed, he explained. It could also generate a concise online audit trail to reduce paper work.

Beginning the conversion to an SOA, Web services powered the BPEL system for provisioning. Rulf and his team of developers, looked at what could be automated in the management system, based in legacy Perl applications.

"It turned out that in a good portion of the steps in our process, there were little Perl scripts and different chunks of code that do those steps and provide a piece of documentation, so you could audit that process," he explained. "We determined that what we needed were wrappers to take those chunks of code and turn them into Web services."

Going back to his example of the Perl script the network administrator used to provide IP addresses, his team wrapped that code into a Web services and let the BPEL engine coordinate, track and audit the processes, replacing of the guy in sneakers.

"So I take that wrapper and I standardize into it a security model, since that's very important for audit regulations, to make sure the person who did the provisioning was authorized to do it," he said. "You wrap some standard error handling and management into it, so I have known exception conditions that I can operate against. Then I can take these wrappers and as I find these chunks of code I encapsulate them with a wrapper and now I have a Web service that performs my provisioning, conforms to auditing regulations and can be called from a BPEL process. That makes it a very auditable and manageable process."

Because the BPEL process is "electronically trackable" in Rulf's term, he finds that visits from auditors are relatively brief. When auditors ask how provisioning was done for a specific customer, Rulf shows them the process in the BPEL coordination engine.

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"It shows me the process flow that was taken, who did what when, how the data changed, what the results were all along the process," he explained.

With that information, the auditors have what they need.

"It's a lot faster for them to look at that diagram than to dig through a foot-and-a-half of hardcopy paper," Rulf said. "So you get this really nice economy, not only of the process running faster because I don't have this guy shepherding this piece of paper around, but my audit costs go down because the auditors can do there audit much quicker, which is probably the greater of the two cost savings."

Rulf is in the process of quantifying the cost savings and does not have any exact numbers. However, based on anecdotal evidence, he estimates that the savings on audits may be more than 15 percent.

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