02 regains IT control with SOA

O2, the UK mobile phone company, has turned to an Oracle-based service oriented architecture (SOA) to regain control of applications development and costs.

O2, the UK mobile phone company, has turned to an Oracle-based service oriented architecture (SOA) to regain control of applications development and costs.

The company, owned by Spain's Telefonica telecoms operator, has grown rapidly. Until last week it was the largest mobile network operator in the UK when it was eclipsed by the merger of T-Mobile and Orange, which will have 29.5 million subscribers against O2's 16.4 million.

David Howden, O2's SOA business architect, said O2's rapid growth and willingness to get into new ventures such as the O2 money card, the O2 entertainment arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) and fixed wire telephony, meant that systems development had taken place at breakneck speed.

He said it had been more important to meet customer needs quickly than to worry about how to optimise O2's IT estate. The inevitable result was multiple systems that used the same or similar code routines, all developed from scratch to meet the needs of specific projects.

"Obviously we couldn't go on like that," said Howden. O2 began thinking of moving to an SOA in late 2007, and identified three required workflows: what services to write, what infrastructure to use, and governance to control systems' access to the services.

O2 evaluates each request for a new application to see if it contains reusable elements that have either already been written or that could join the library of routines.

The company decided to charge business unit owners for the costs of writing new services. At first some units argued that they shouldn't be charged fully for services that others would use too, according to Howden, but O2 overcame objections by saying it was the only way for a department to get the system it wanted. Besides, there would be times when they would get something for nothing as the service library grew.

The only way to wield such a big stick is with the board's support. Howden said the board is fully behind the SOA initiative, which is a five-year corporate strategy for IT.

O2 spent 2008 setting up the infrastructure based on Oracle, and governance platforms, which runs on IBM Power servers. It identifed which services it needed first, and hired software house Torry Harris Business Systems (THBS) as its services-writing "factory".

Howden said that business units owners are responsible, along with IT, for providing THBS with the functional specification for a service. THBS, working in "agile development" with six-week and eight-week "sprints", is responsible for delivering the services. "Business unit owners remain responsible for the end-to-end testing and functionality of the system," Howden said.

The first system, a self-service application for staff in the call centre and elsewhere to look up what broadband line speeds were available in which postcodes, went live on 9 January 2009.

Since then 02 has rewritten 100 services under SOA, and reused code for 150 different systems. Howden expected another 250 services to be added to the library this year, and a corresponding increase in the reuse of the code.

2010 will also see O2 sharpen its governance to include trouble-shooting services once they are running live. The routines in the SOA library already run more than a million times a day and interface to 25 back-end applications. This makes it important to be able to drill down into them to fix problems as they arise.

Howden plans to start adding entire business processes, such as adding and deleting customers, to the SOA system. "This is where we expect to get massive payback on the investment," he said.

Howden is reluctant to discuss financial issues directly. O2 based its decision to go SOA on the premise that reusing code just once was enough to justify it, he said. It has brought other benefits. These include reduced time to market for new products and services, hence greater business agility, as well as the simplification of a complex application portfolio.

Howden estimated that at least half the IT projects O2 will launch this year will contain reused code.

SOA should be like iTunes for business

This was last published in March 2010

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