Complex event processing (CEP) conjoined with service-oriented architecture (SOA) may revolutionize business computing as its enthusiasts suggest, but right now the question that begs to be asked is the same one that dogged SOA itself two years ago: who the heck is using it and what are they using it for?
The favorite vendor example is online automated stock trading where CEP can coordinate various systems in an SOA infrastructure to make the million-dollar millisecond buy/don't-buy decisions that might leave mere humans in a dither. But there are some more mundane examples ranging from systems management to building security to Web-based role playing games.
"Don't expect too much, it's still early," cautions David Cameron, vice president of product integration at AptSoft Corp., one of the CEP startups that began in the late '90s to convert academic theory into business software products.
One of his customers is a healthcare management company that is working on a CEP prototype that would help steer patients into wellness programs for things like quitting smoking or getting more exercise based on data coming from a variety of medical applications. Another would watch over contract processes for a supplier and trigger the start of procurement processing once a threshold was reached. An insurance company is looking at using CEP to monitor online quote applications, which if abandoned between getting the quote and buying a policy, would follow up with marketing emails aimed at luring the reluctant customer back to the company's version of sign-on-the-dotted-line.com.
But these are all prototypes or pilots, similar to what was being done with SOA and Ajax in the early adopter days. However, one of AptSoft's customers that Cameron can talk about by name is nearing implementation of a real world CEP application.
"One of our customers is ISO New England," he said. "They manage the electricity grid. They're regional operators. Their job is to maintain a market in electricity. So you have producers who sell and consumers who buy. A year ago, they had a glitch where the consumers of electricity were unable to post their bids on the market system. That can be a big problem because that is federally regulated. It's like a stock market. If you close your market for the day and you didn't include bids from people for technical reasons or whatever, then you've got a big problem because those people have not been served by the market and your job is to keep the market open."
The problem stemmed from one of those tricky computer interactions that drive systems managers crazy, Cameron explained. Bids were being block not because the system was failing or shutting off. That, of course, would have been too easy.
"The symptoms of this problem were that it wasn't that the system just failed, it was that the system failed gradually over time and the behavior would have looked normal, if it hadn't been the end of the trading session," he said.
One of the proxy servers was operating slower than normal and while bids to buy electricity were still flowing into the system, some bids were being prevented from making it in before the trading deadline, Cameron explained.
There was a way to catch this glitch, which turned out to be a perfect job for a CEP application, he said. Just as many more bids come in during the last five minutes of an eBay auction, which is the nature of auctions, more bids come in to an electricity trading system just before the close of trading. CEP can be set up with the basic if/then formula to say if at five minute intervals near close of trading fewer rather than more bids come in, then the system is experiencing a performance problem that may lock some bidders out.
"So we built a prototype for that," Cameron said. "They are now in the process of moving into production with CEP. It runs on top of TIBCO, which provides a BPM layer to orchestrate services."
While stock and energy trading applications, and even health and sales management, are the nuts and bolts of the business world use cases for CEP, another vendor StreamBase Systems Inc., has a customer that is using the technology for fun and games.
While the company founded by Mike Stonebraker, based on CEP research he did at MIT, relies on automated stock trading for its bread and butter, it has a customer in the virtual online gaming world.
"Massively multi-player online games that are popular with teenagers and people in their 20s, attract 20,000 to 30,000 player movements per second," explained Bill Hobbib, vice president, marketing for StreamBase. "Databases and traditional systems are not the right paradigm for processing analyzing and responding to this."
If online games don't sound like serious business, guess again says Bill Dalton, technical director for BioWare Corp., a massive multi-player (as in millions of players) online game maker. He explains that the world of virtual online game playing can generate millions of dollars in revenue for the maker of a successful game. If you attract hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of players each paying subscription fees of $10 per month, you can do the math, but it starts to amount to real money.
"These games are not like online poker," he explains. "They don't support eight people playing together, they support thousands of people playing online at the same time. It's a virtual world and it's a persistent world, so you create a character and run around doing whatever is fun for you to do in that world, and the world persists everything about your character. So massive multi-player games take extremely complex software."
AptSoft's Cameron uses an example of how CEP works in providing building security, that is relevant to Dalton's virtual world. Security software based on CEP might correlate two events, such as a door being opened, but the light in the room not being turned on, which might indicate that someone is in that room doing something nefarious.
The virtual game world that Dalton is developing has players doing similar activities. They might walk into city hall or pick up a package or leave off a package or gather materials for a building project. While CEP security tracks and correlates the movements of potential burglars in the brick and mortar world, it can also follow the moves of characters in a virtual world, Dalton said.
BioWare has been a maker of standalone games up until now and development of the new yet to be named game Dalton is working on is the company's first venture into massive multi-player games. He says without CEP, it would be very difficult to keep track of all the players and their movements.
"Massive multi-player games take extremely complex software," he said. And in his case complex event processing is the gambit he is betting on to pay off.