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EAI? Keep it simple, says BT

by David Longworth
February 3rd, 2003

BT's offer at the launch of its web services platform last September to pass on its internal experiences to customers may be more generous than it sounds.

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BT is not only a supplier of web services, but also an early adopter within its own internal systems. Its head of systems integration relates the lessons of its in-house experiences:
  • Keep it simple — standards are still emerging
  • Ensure the deployment environment is robust
  • Change project development timescales
  • Use where EAI adds no value
  • Above all, find an application - not technology for technology's sake

Glossary terms: XML, HTTP, SOAP, EAI, lookup tool

The telecoms giant is certainly not insisting it has all the answers when it comes to web services. But it could be that in an area that is still quite new and untested it may have some useful experiences. And, given the complex nature of many of its legacy systems — which are integrated using enterprise application integration (EAI) hubs or hand-cranked code — they are lessons it is rapidly becoming well-qualified to teach.

Jon Calladine, legacy access and major systems integration manager at BT, admits its conversion to web services has been a haphazard affair. "We've been working towards web services for a little while. At first, we didn't realize we were doing it. But then it became a natural progression."

The journey began two years ago with the move to a standard XML message format. Its transports supported HTTP using MQ Series — IBM's message broker. Having set about XML enabling them, BT bought into the SOAP standard, which adds the formal structures to the messages.

When the first web services toolkits came out, such as Cape Studio and Connect from Cape Clear, it became easy for BT to create client applications, and it was then a small step to move to full blown web services.

A number of caveats
Calladine says at the outset, though, that there are a number of caveats attached to web services, the most important emanating from the dangers of flux in standards. "Right now, I would say keep it simple. There are a lot of standards and a lot of promise, but standards very rarely get issued. They just become de facto standards. So keep to the core and keep track of what else is going on."

More problems arise when attempting complex interactions, partly due to toolkit incompatibilities, and Calladine advises that web services are not yet suitable for real-time or high-volume transactions. "What we have found is if you have a complex web service running [using a toolkit], it may not be able to cope. There's no point in having it if everyone cannot consume it." This explains why BT believes there's a market for its Web Services Deployment Environment, a commercial offering in which, for £10,000 ($15,000) set-up costs and £20,000 ($30,000) per month full service, BT will host customers' deployments.

Some internal change may be required in the move to web services, as it will not get round the age-old problem of scheduling developer time. "You can speed up development and testing, but if you're stuck in a one-month cycle for developing code, then you'll have to wait for that," says Calladine. Nevertheless, "the benefit we see in being loosely coupled is that we have true language independence. That was what we were aiming for when we selected XML in the first place two years ago."

The key enabler
There are clearly many different areas where these simple principles can be applied — and BT has several projects at different stages of completion. But much of its focus is on its customer service system and One of the top five company websites in the UK, still only accounts for 7% of its transactions with customers. Pierre Danon, CEO of BT Retail, says he is keen to have more customers logging on rather than phoning its call centers: "We know customers are interested in transacting with us online but the difficulty is we could not deliver that quickly or efficiently enough. We believe web services are the key enabler."

One example is on-line validation. Previously, users would enter their details and BT would validate them off-line, leaving a crucial lag during which they could change their minds or not return. The difficulty was translating between the HTTP call from and the legacy system at the back end. Now web services convert the existing Cobol screen transactions, dynamically wrapping them to present to the front end. XML is well suited to converting Cobol data, as the structure is already well-defined.

Another example is BT's Broadband Availability Check, which Danon describes as "probably our most famous application in the UK." This is where customers enter their phone number to find out if broadband is available in their area. The system initially had to be closed down because it was taking three or four days to respond. It is now wrapped up as a web service and responds almost instantaneously. "This kind of functionality was totally out of reach six months ago. It was unthinkable," says Danon.

Where EAI adds value
Where things become slightly more complicated is when an EAI hub is already providing complex process integrations. In the area of B2B integration with partners, BT is currently web service-enabling its EAI hubs. Most EAI vendors already support XML and tools such as BEA WebLogic Integrator or IBM MQSI use it as their internal data format, so all that needs adding is the SOAP interface and coding of the XML.

But Calladine notes a further complication that BT encountered. "There are certain structures in the arrays that need to be modified because the SOAP standard requires it. If you don't do that then the toolkits won't be able to understand it." This is a crucial point, and early adopters are likely to make errors in not fully complying with the standard.

So is web services an alternative to EAI? The important point is to understand where EAI adds value. It can handle business process, and make connections for complex transactions, where you need to keep coming back to the same machine. It is also essential for data transformation. But elsewhere, companies should not put applications through an EAI hub, with the overheads that involves, if it's not adding value. Calladine's advice: "Web services where appropriate can cut out a lot of complexity."

At the moment, web services will bring you no benefits if you are looking to integrate off-the-shelf packages like CRM which do not yet support it. Long-term, though, a very different picture may emerge, if BT's early experiences are anything to go by. "If you've chosen to use web services as your integration model but have to write it from scratch it will not speed up development. But it will have incredible value for the client services using it."

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