Hoteliers were among the first businesses to turn to information technology. Now, their once-new foundational computers have become legacy systems that can block in the way of delivering new products and promotions. These are not always just mainframe systems – once-shiny high-performance mid-range (or larger) Unix systems and even pre-SOA-era application servers may be standing in the way of business flexibility just as easily.
In recent years, as some systems began to show their age, Choice Hotels International, Inc., which franchises over 6,000 hotels, opted to update with middleware systems from Oracle Corp. Choice Hotels’ move is well along. SOA is part of the journey.
“Several years ago, we did an overall assessment and decided there were too many point-to-point connections,” said Rain Fletcher, vice president of application development and architecture, Choice Hotels. “Maintenance was difficult, and our business needed more velocity in delivering new functionality.”
That is the background to Choice’s selection of Oracle Fusion Middleware, SOA Suite and BPM Suite, he said. Oracle application server software also provides the base for those higher level stack elements. Fletcher described Choice’s as “a WebLogic shop,” referring to the former BEA, now Oracle, app server suite.
The legacy systems were becoming “a liability in our ability to execute,” said Fletcher. A re-thinking of IT architecture was needed, he said.
The need for quick technical flexibility is intensely apparent on the Choice Hotels’ website today. It is dotted with special book-early rate offers, gift card offerings, Privilege Point member specials, downloadable iPad and smart phone apps and more. It enables bookings on Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Econo Lodge, Sleep Inn and other familiar hotel marquees. All this functionality must be fleet and flexible, and supported by backend systems and middleware.
A big part of Fletcher’s drive is to simplify and standardize where possible. “We wanted to default to one standard,” he said. But multiple systems are a fact of life that require developers to be supple. The that is needed is what Fletcher calls “fungibility.”
“We have thirteen different systems. And I don’t want there [to be a need for] ‘tribal knowledge’ of any one of them,” he said.
How does that pan out in operations? Some complexity is unavoidable – but simplicity must be the goal. “Every application server type we have has a different patching policy and security profile,” he said. “I may have four – I don’t want any more,” he said.
SOA and the Oracle SOA Suite have been first steps in gaining the flexibility Fletcher’s organization is looking to achieve, with BPM and modeling deployments to come, he said. Developers go through intensive training in SOA. He said the effort is built around the concept of a “SOA Services Factory.”
“We started with service domain module creation, working with partners to create several high-level service domains,” said Fletcher. Looking forward, he expects to be mapping SOA services with well-defined business processes. The domains provide a framework for the services. As the services grow up they map naturally to how the business thinks, and what the business does, he said.