Can changing an IT architectural philosophy deliver business benefits such as improving service quality, speeding up software development and making it more flexible, enabling new products and services, and reducing IT spending? For one wireless telecom company, which has been moving from a traditional “silo” IT architecture to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) over the past half-dozen years, the answer is a definitive yes.
Back in 2001, Qualcomm’s IT architecture, like most enterprises’, included multiple silos—information systems that couldn’t easily communicate with each other. Connecting these systems required lots of point-to-point integration and a lot of technologies, recalls Norm Fjeldheim, CIO at Qualcomm. “And the communication was inefficiently done,” he adds.
Qualcomm’s businesses revolve around creating and providing digital communications products for wireless networks and devices, as well as network services based on CDMA and other technologies. Headquartered in San Diego, Qualcomm is a Fortune 500 company with more than 12,800 employees and FY07 revenues of nearly $9 billion.
Qualcomm’s products and services include wireless chipset technology used in commercial 3G devices; integrated wireless systems and services for businesses; Firethorn Mobile Wallet integrated mobile-oriented applications for financial institutions, mobile network operators, merchants and retailers; and MediaFLO USA, which aggregates and delivers premium, TV-quality entertainment and information services to mobile devices over its dedicated nationwide wireless network.
The Limits of Legacy Silo IT
Like all large companies today—especially companies whose products and services are, or depend heavily, on digital networks—Qualcomm’s ability to satisfy its customers, increase business volume, and develop and create new products and services is highly enabled—or constrained—by IT capabilities.
For example, says Steve Polaski, director of Enterprise Architecture for Qualcomm, “We had ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems that had the same data being extracted three times and being sent to three different systems: to a PLM (product lifecycle management) application, to a CRM (customer relationship management) system and also to trade export compliance applications.”
Also, recalls Polaski, “We saw a lot of our IT budget being consumed [in] handling integration. Some of our core systems had dozens, even hundreds, of integration points. It was a challenge to keep track of them all and was a big expenditure and was slowing us down.”
One particular bugaboo was the time it took—too long—to provision customers of Qualcomm’s electronic products and services, such as remote wireless devices provided by a Qualcomm business. For a customer to add or change features, the device needs to be reprovisioned, which can be done remotely via the network. “The device might already be loaded with features, but the customer hadn’t yet purchased them, so we could remotely turn them on and off,” says Fjeldheim. However, it took too long for changes to take effect after the change commands were given. “Our goal was to reduce this time delay,” says Polaski. The team wanted provisioning to happen as possible to real time, as opposed to waiting several hours.
In addition, says Polaski, the IT department wanted real-time data movement. For example, the same event and data that triggered the provisioning should also be sent to the billing and CRM systems, so customer service would know immediately what features are now enabled.
The SOA Way of Doing Things
To handle some of these IT challenges, Qualcomm turned to a then-relatively new concept, service-oriented architecture (SOA), which makes applications available as “services” that can be accessed by other applications.
“SOA is a concept and a process and a way of thinking about how to move data and how to allow business functions to interoperate with each other,” says Polaski. “We were thinking about the space—then known as EAI (enterprise application integration)—and services, back in 2001. We knew back then that this was the future, the way to go. We looked at various products that could help enable us expose the services and to move the data between the services. We started reviewing products very late in 2001, made decisions in March of 2002 and started implementation in June 2002. Full implementation across the company was late 2002 or early 2003.”
After looking at products available back in 2001, Qualcomm selected products from Tibco Software to create the new SOA environment.
“We have other pieces in our SOA fabric today,” Polaski notes. “Tibco products are a major part of this, and we use a number of tools from Oracle, including Oracle BPEL Process Manager. Plus, we use a number of open-source products. But Tibco was the first set of SOA products we used.”
By exposing systems as services, the Tibco environment lets IT make existing systems available through service calls and build new services and combine services into new applications, with little or no coding.
The period between the time Qualcomm selected Tibco until the first set of services and integration were up was three to four months, says Polaski. “More than half of that time was architecting the foundation, to make sure we had a well-established infrastructure in place before doing our first integration before we attacked the actual integration itself.”
“We started by not attacking our existing integration, anything already in place,” says Fjeldheim. “We built the SOA infrastructure around Tibco. And then as new things came up, instead of using what we had been using, we started using Tibco; and that is how we got things established. So it became our new engine around growth. As we learned more about the tools and SOA, we added new components and new things from other vendors. And we opportunistically went after old existing integration. The biggest pain points were then converted later on to this architecture.”
“It was a good approach for us,” says Fjeldheim. “We had a lot we needed to get done, and this let us do it a lot quicker and it was less painful. We were pretty religious about not doing things the old way and adding to the problem. We used Tibco and our SOA infrastructure as much as possible for everything new we created.” Whenever they had to touch old pieces, such as to upgrade a system, they asked whether it was a good time to migrate to the new infrastructure. Sometimes it was; sometimes it wasn’t.
Today, according to Fjeldheim, “Our SOA is deployed globally, covering all of the enterprise. To date, we’ve got over 150 messages being sent between different apps, 58 Web services using different kinds of technology from Tibco, Oracle and open source. And we have probably exposed close to 180 other services through application APIs. It’s continually growing…it’s a never-ending process.”
One obvious benefit of applying the SOA approach was achieving the desired close-to-real-time provisioning, reports Polaski. “By changing the architecture and our integration strategy, the time to add features and functions to wireless devices went down to from three hours or so to five seconds.”
“Customer satisfaction went way up as a result,” notes Fjeldheim. “Our internal and external customers were both happy.”
Also, says Polaski, “We have agility and flexibility to support our changing business models that we didn’t before, because the services are being orchestrated, rather than hardwired to each other.”
Qualcomm’s IT budget has also benefited, reports Fjeldheim. “We’ve freed up at least half a million dollars of annual integration costs out of the annual IT budget. A single piece of integration used to cost us anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000. Thanks to Tibco and other systems we’ve deployed, we’ve cut that by a factor of 5 to 10, freeing that money up to spend on other things.”
IT’s new skill sets and capabilities have let developers handle new challenges more effectively. “We needed an IT solution for a new business problem, and instead of the week that the vendor thought it would take, we were able to get it up and running in three hours,” says Fjeldheim.
Qualcomm’s SOA-based infrastructure also makes it much easier to make use of SaaS (software as a service), according to Fjeldheim. “Unlike some other firms we’ve talked to, we’ve been able to integrate SaaS applications into our SOA infrastructure, rather than just use them as individual applications.” Plus, the engineering department has adopted what IT has developed and has used its solutions to offer services to customers.
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, Mass. He blogs about technology at TryingTechnology.com.