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SOA used to reinvent the supply chain at Click Commerce

Supply chain application vendor Click Commerce has turned to SOA to transform its standard products into customized offerings and to cut its development time.

The future of service-oriented architecture is composing custom applications to meet customers demands, but at Click Commerce Inc. that future is now.

It used to take somewhere in the range of 80 to 100 hours to build and test a new interface. Now, we're finding we can do that same work in about 16 to 24 hours.
Michael Anderson
Product ManagerESB

The Chicago-based provider of on-demand supply chain management applications for customers including BASF, Eastman Kodak Company and Verizon Communications Inc. is turning an ESB into a profit center, says Steve Cole, senior vice president of product management. This wasn't just a speculative pilot project, but a real product offering that was developed to meet the demands of corporate customers, he explained.

"About a year and a half ago, we recognized that our customers were looking for combinations of our products that were unique," Cole explained. "They were looking for our products to do things that out-of-the-box they wouldn't do on their own and what they were really asking was for us to combine our products in unique and different ways to address individual process problems."

The first SOA project Click Commerce developed to meet this demand was a composite application for managing a "reverse supply chain." Unlike the traditional supply chain designed to get products to customers, this one is designed for cases where a manufacture needs to go to their customer and get a product back, Cole explained. The first application involved server racks that need to be returned to the manufacturer to be repaired or refurbished. That process, from identifying the rack at the customer site through returning it after its fixed, needed to be managed and tracked.

"The process from our point of view of creating that solution for the customer drew upon four different products that Click Commerce offers," Coles said. "We could have hammered out a hardwired integration between those products, but we thought a more flexible solution would be to build the application around SOA. So we created the Click Commerce Composite Application Framework, which is built on Click Commerce ESB, the enterprise service bus."

Development of the ESB as a product platform came out of several months of research done by Michael Anderson, who is both the product manager for the ESB and manager of the engineering team that developed it.

The problem Anderson was looking to solve was how to create an SOA infrastructure for a variety of software products that have come into the Click Commerce fold as the company has bought up vendors. Many of the products had been developed for SOA deployments, but some of them were legacy systems that pre-dated the service-oriented approach, he explained.

"So what we needed to enable these composite applications was to build a product that can sit in the middle of them that can utilize the SOA infrastructure where it exists and provide the SOA infrastructure where it does not exist."

Based on his research and evaluation, Click Commerce selected Oracle BPEL Process Manager, a component of Oracle Corp.'s Fusion Middleware for what Anderson calls "the core engine of our ESB." To compose applications built for SOA along with those using legacy technology dating back to flat file databases, the ESB uses separate layers for transport and transformation, he said.

"The first layer really is the IP and transport protocols that are available," Anderson explained. "That lets us talk to applications in the manner that they are used to being talked to. It also lets us connect to our customers and their customers in a protocol that they're used to using. The transport layer lets us talk via Web services [using] JMS and HTTP. Then we use the transport layer to send those messages through to the transformation layer, which is where we use BPEL process manager to orchestrate the process flow and facilitate the transformation of the data into whatever format the destination system is going to need. Then it goes out to that transport layer and lets us talk to the application in the transport that it's used to."

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This allows both SOA-ready and legacy applications to work together and avoid the time and money that would have had to be spent to rip and replace APIs, Anderson said. Although he did not have exact ROI numbers, he had identified clear time savings that will translate into both reduced development costs and faster time to market for the new composite application products.

"From my experience, I've been doing integration for the past 10 years, it looks to me like its cut it down by a factor of five in terms of the time that it used to take us to build traditional interfaces," Anderson said. "It used to take somewhere in the range of 80 to 100 hours to build and test a new interface. Now, we're finding we can do that same work in about 16 to 24 hours."

Cole sees a future where Click Commerce will be able to meet a business customer's demand for a special supply chain application by quickly composing it using the SOA infrastructure Anderson and his team have developed.

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