While many enterprises are still trying to get their arms around just what service oriented architectures (SOAs) really are, BT is nearing the end of an eight-year effort to move to an entirely SOA-based IT environment, according to W. George Glass, BT's chief architect.

Glass said the company is on target to have enterprise-wide SOA by 2009, capping off a shift to a services-oriented architecture that began with provisioning of the company's mainframe systems in 2001.
He said that BT's effort is one of the largest SOA implementations in the world and is driven by a confluence of factors: a company decision to divide into separate lines of business to better serve customers, the construction of its internet protocol (IP) 21st century network (21CN) and the deregulation by Ofcom of the wholesale broadband market.

"All three of these required changes to our architecture to support them and, as we went down the road on each, we found the SOA approach satisfied each," Glass said.

BT had been experimenting with SOA since 2001, when the company first started using middleware to expose mainframe functionality as web-based services, Glass said.

BT has since expanded that effort across its entire IT infrastructure, which encompasses more than 3,500 core systems, creating something called the Matrix Platform Architecture to support the shift. Matrix ties together 14 platforms with common capabilities that are reusable, and uses standards to streamline engineering and maintenance costs.

So far, BT has identified 160 "capabilities" it needs to expose, each with between five and 15 operations. For example, a "manage customer order" capability might collect information such as customer reference numbers, time and date of order, products purchased and so on. Of those, BT has completed work and deployed 63 capabilities affecting 730 systems in the past two years.

When fully complete, the transition will make it much easier for BT to build and introduce new products and services for customers by reusing common components – say, customer identification and revenue collection – allowing BT to focus development resources just on new functionality, Glass said.

Not that the transition to SOA has always been easy. BT engineers have sometimes failed to grasp the full complexity of different capabilities, requiring them to go back in to enhance capabilities they thought were well defined.

BT also encountered wide disparities between its documented business processes and the actual "facts on the ground" in its call centres and product groups.

And Long-time BT IT employees also struggled with the demands to shift to SOA, fearing that it would make their jobs irrelevant. While developers who create new services rather than reuse existing ones may even risk losing up to a quarter of annual performance bonuses, Glass told the InfoWorld SOA Executive Forum in New York City on Tuesday.

"We had people who had been in the organisation a long time and knew a particular system inside-out. They were valued for that knowledge and we were saying to them: 'We don't value your knowledge of that system as much as I value your ability to express that.'"

Glass said that the shift to SOA has already produced a 20% reduction in IT staff. The company has moved two thousand IT staff from internal projects to customer-facing and revenue-generating roles.

By 2009, BT plans to have enough of its infrastructure shifted to an SOA model to support its core products for all its major customers.

In the end, the move to a 100% SOA environment will be hard-fought, but positive for the company: reducing the cost of IT, reducing support costs for legacy and redundant applications and focusing BT on improving business processes rather than technology, Glass said.

"I think we're really pioneers in this," Glass said.