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SOA serves up customer truth center

Farm Credit Services of America turned to SOA to build an integrated, real-time CRM system that replaced a bunch of batch processing that had grown unwieldy.

As the industry is learning, service-oriented architectures come in all different shapes and configurations. For Farm Credit Services of America, the first SOA solution it built is dubbed "Pinwheel," an integration application that utilizes the .NET Framework, Microsoft Windows Server System and BizTalk Server 2004.

The process of getting them to agree on one standard was lengthy and difficult, and testing was lengthy because of the amount of things changing.
Beth Schmidt
Director of Application DevelopmentFCSAmerica

Omaha, Neb.-based Farm Credit Services of American (FCSAmerica) provides credit and financial services to farmers and ranchers throughout the Midwest. Its approximately 600 employees are involved in loan activities and like many companies, its employees had to wrestle with silos of customer information to do their jobs. These included a mainframe-based loan accounting system, a third-party CRM system, a custom loan origination system written in Visual Basic and a Web-based system dealer origination system written in Java. Information was shared among the systems through nightly batch processing.

FCSAmerica had several pain points: It was running out of nighttime to complete its increasing nightly batch processing. Transaction time was slow for same-day loans because a lot of rekeying was required and there were too many "masters" of data.

"Every time we added or built something new, it added to the nightly batch processing," said Beth Schmidt, director of application development at FCSAmerica. "It was just taking longer to run the jobs and sometimes they weren't finished as business was starting to ramp up the next day. That was a problem. The other problem was the time it would take to complete a transaction. If you entered a new customer in the CRM system, it wouldn't be available in the loan system until the next day. If you were trying to make a loan on that day, you had to rekey [customer information]. To book a loan you had to rekey information to the loan accounting system for a new customer. There was a lot of potential for error."

The company was in process of having its VB-based loan origination system rewritten in VB.NET and decided to take this opportunity to rework the system to share customer information, said Schmidt. FCSAmerica wanted all employees going through its third-party CRM system to enter, change and retrieve customer data, but that same data was needed in its other systems as well. "So we said let's take that and build a core customer truth center and have one master and send updates [to the other systems] in real time instead of at night."

Schmidt said her group had been considering an SOA as part of its integration solution. "We had decided on SOA in-house. We had considered BizTalk, but at the time BizTalk 2000 was clunky and didn't do what we wanted it to do. Then one of our developers went to TechEd 2003 and heard about BizTalk 2004."

Coincidentally, she said, Microsoft partner Quilogy Inc. approached FCSAmerica about trying out BizTalk 2004 in a proof of concept that would be partially funded through Quilogy and Microsoft. "We were already going down that path, so it was perfect timing that Quilogy called," she said.

Quilogy built Pinwheel using an SOA methodology. It replaces the old point-to-point connections with a single integration point. Information is processed through Pinwheel, stored in a "customer truth center" and published back to the customer-related systems.

The entire project took about 18 months, Schmidt said. "Everyone had different business rules. The process of getting them to agree on one standard was lengthy and difficult, and testing was lengthy because of the amount of things changing."

While she said this wasn't a "big bang" SOA effort that reached enterprisewide, they did implement the new .NET-based loan origination system, SOA framework and customer truth center with "a flip of a switch." She added, "It wasn't a complete enterprise overhaul, but it was a lot of work. SOA projects in general tend to be a bit of work."

Schmidt said BizTalk is one of the key enablers for its SOA, "but we know we don't necessarily have to use a tool like that for SOA." However, she added that they "continue to try to take advantage of it. If we implement a new system, we utilize BizTalk. It's set up to enable Web services, so we're utilizing a lot more of Web services to access some of that data. The nice thing about BizTalk is it's so versatile it's able to scale up and out, then scale back for everyday use very easily."

As far as moving to BizTalk 2006, Schmidt said her group is looking at it, but does not have upgrade plans yet. "We try to be leading edge, but not bleeding edge. BizTalk 2004 was almost an exception for us [because] we did bring BizTalk 2004 in when it was in beta." However, Schmidt's said their IT group has a standard to stay within a few versions of a product, so an upgrade is on the horizon.

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Read what Microsoft architect John DeVadoss has to say about SOA

Likewise with the .NET Framework 3.0. "We know we're going to go there, but we don't have the date penciled in yet. There are some compatibility issues if you adopt too soon. We need to wait until the other folks [ISVs] catch up."

For other organizations looking to implement on SOA, Schmidt recommends getting expert help and starting small. Eventually, Schmidt expects to expand its SOA across the enterprise, "but we try to let the business needs drive IT. This SOA project was very IT centric. We recognized it needed to be done, but it was hard to convince the business of that. There was a lot of stuff they didn't understand."

But the business side has taken notice of the payback, she said. "We've reduced the amount of time it takes them to serve customers and reduced the manual entry. Multiple people were affected in small ways that adds up to big change."

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