How can the IT infrastructure be transformed from a barrier to business change to an enabler?
That was the challenge consumer credit provider Cattles set itself. The 80 year-old company operates in the ‘sub-prime’ segment of the financial services industry that provides loans to the 3.5 million consumers who are annually refused credit by the UK’s banks. Profitability relies on being able to cal-culate clients’ potential for defaulting on a loan to a much greater degree than any high street bank. As such, success in meeting changing customer and regulatory requirements is directly tied to the flexibility and responsiveness of the underlying IT environment.
Mark Simpson, chief architect at systems integrator Griffiths Waite has worked with managers at Cattles to design and build such an IT infrastructure: “Cattles needed more flexibility in its lending and flexible IT to support it.”
As chief architect at systems integrator Griffiths Waite, Mark Simpson is in charge of the delivery of business process management (BPM) and integration solutions to major clients through the implementation of service-oriented architectures. That deep knowledge on BPM extends to areas such as business processes execution language, business activity modelling and business rules engines.
That flexibility comes from the adoption of a service-oriented architecture (SOA), explains Simpson – although that was not how the transformational approach was sold to Cattles’ senior business managers. Rather, they were told how the new systems were all about “satisfying business drivers,” he says.
What they bought into was a 12-month programme to automate Cattles’ business processes. Using Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) tools, the Griffiths Waite team was able to see how all business processes were executed end-to-end, making adjustments to align processes more closely with business needs. They were then able to design systems to automate those processes, including where complex processes actually entailed using functions from a variety of different applications.
This sort of complex cross-application process requires sophisticated management tools, says Simpson, because “the more automation you introduce, the greater the need for control and visibility into how applications are behaving.”
One critical business requirement, for example, was to improve the ability to link to third-party systems. While, previously, Cattles simply bought lists of refused loan applicants from banks, the new SOA streamlines that process by integrating with the banks’ systems.
In support of the new architecture the team also introduced a range of business activity monitoring (BAM) sensors that could track each business service step and monitor cross-applications processes.
This level of detail ensures that, in the event of a server problem, managers can gauge the knock-on effect across individual process, assess the overall business impact and invoke additional capacity.
That kind of flexibility is not just a factor of the SOA; it is derived through the use of virtualisation and provisioning technologies running over a grid computing architecture.
Applying software control on top of a grid model provides a massive business benefit, and one that can quickly pay for itself, says Simpson. “The use of virtualisation and provisioning at an infrastructure and application level can make the management of the infrastructure a powerful business tool, helping to manage service levels,” he adds.
Instead of adding capacity to data centres already packed to the rafters with under-utilised servers, he says, the approach can help businesses better provision hardware by creating a specific link between the physical infrastructure and business processes.
But processes are not all about technology. “However much you want to automate a business process, it’s important to realise how often there is a need for manual intervention. You have to plan for that,” says Simpson.