AARP advances Web services

An SOA opens up new business opportunities.

The AARP is dedicated to making life better for people 50 and older, offering its 35 million members discounts on insurance, travel and more. Likewise, IT executives are dedicated to providing an application infrastructure of easily consumable Web services - for use by the business partners serving AARP members.

With Web services, AARP cuts the development time needed for point-to-point integration between its core membership back-end application and a business partner's front-end membership application from months to nil, says Brian Coyle, application architect at the Washington, D.C., nonprofit formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. AARP simply needs a couple of days to coordinate security and delivery of the Web services to the business partner. In turn, the business partner realizes a similar reduction in development time, he adds.

While Web services do let internal and external application developers work more efficiently, the bigger motivation is improved customer service for AARP’s members, Coyle says. That’s why the organization has embraced a service-oriented architecture (SOA) as the underpinning for its New Data Center-focused application development strategy.

“A services-oriented strategy lets AARP provide real-time membership data to business partners so they can provide the best possible customer service to members,” Coyle says.

AARP embarked on its services-oriented strategy three years ago as it planned how best to integrate a new third-party call center with its core membership back-end application, called Konnex. Running on a mainframe, Konnex handles all membership functions — dues processing, account updates, contact management and the like. It acts as the central rules repository to which all business partner membership applications interface.

Previously, the interaction between a third-party call center and Konnex would have taken place via batch processes or through an AARP-developed client/server application that the call center would then host. But with batch processes came overhead costs associated with transferring and loading files and the need to create comprehensive exception processes, Coyle says. “And using AARP-developed applications forced business partners to use multiple front-end applications to service members,” he adds.

Developers for AARP and the business partners needed months to accomplish the integration. For example, letting an AARP member access and update account information via the Web, through an interactive voice response system or by calling a contact center, meant creating three distinct business processes. With Web services, those user interfaces access the same business process. “Obviously, this is a great savings in cost and development time,” Coyle says.

Under the SOA strategy, AARP’s application architects broke the core Konnex functionality into 30 reusable Web services, and they migrated from a Sybase PowerBuilder-based client/server application infrastructure to a service-oriented model using BEA WebLogic application servers. This initial Web services project took less than a year to complete, Coyle says. Since completing it, IT has provided the Konnex-related Web services to eight companies that offer insurance, marketing and travel services to AARP members. As of late winter, AARP handles about 100,000 Web services transactions daily from the third-party call center and additional business partners, Coyle says.

Today, IT readies the Web services for delivery to its business partners manually in a process that requires some coding for security and management, Coyle says. As more business partners request Web services, IT would one day like to use an off-the-shelf SOA security and management infrastructure tool, he adds.

AARP has been pilot testing SOA Software’s Service Manager software suite for securing, monitoring and managing Web services across distributed enterprises, and plans to deploy the software for production purposes next month. Service Manager uses the Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) specifications that will enable AARP to publish information about its Web services. Its business partners could search that metadata to find and run the Web services.

“Service Manager will help us provision Web services by taking some of the security out of code and allowing us to create virtual services,” he says.

“We have security and management in place now. We’re just looking to see if we can find a better way to do this — and I think we can,” he explains.

Coyle also notes that AARP’s interest in Web services goes beyond the membership services business. His next target will be the organization’s volunteer information management system, a Java application with its own front-end and back-end functionality.

“I’d like to do the same thing for it that we did with the membership application — break it into core functions and sit any platforms on top of it,” he says. “Then we can provide users of that application — the volunteer leaders — more flexibility.”

As the application architects look to Web service-enable the volunteer information management system and AARP’s other major applications, Coyle says he’ll bear in mind his experiences with the initial call-center project.

“The major lesson learned,” he says, “is to design the Web services generically enough [and using standards such as SOAP] so they are functional for a wide variety of users. We developed this first set of Web services for the third-party call center, but because we did a good job providing generic functionality, now all these different partners can access them.”

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