National Australia Bank begins SOA adventure

Von Rodney Gedda

Implementing a service oriented architecture (SOA) may be a strategic direction for enterprises with disparate systems, but the National Australia Bank Ltd. is now deploying its first production application built on top of an SOA.

Chris Tham, National Australia Bank"s head of architecture for technology distribution, told Computerworld the key SOA initiative at the bank is a financial planning tool for advisers and employees.

The application was developed as an SOA to provide financial advice for clients "which are now interoperable" as "today platforms deal with multiple applications".

"It"s providing flexibility [as] there was no data interchange across the existing tools," Tham said.

There are three or four major and six minor applications in the suite, which was developed on the premise of getting the information into NAB subsidiary MLC and NAB backend systems, making the integration horizontal and vertical.

The project was also about how to get more information into the underlying systems, Tham said.

The new application was first implemented in mid-2004, and although still being rolled out, is in use in production both internally and externally.

"It"s making the financial advisers more efficient and, hence, enabling them to bring in more revenue," Tham said. "It also provides easy integration of financial planning tools. It"s a "pluggable architecture"."

Tham is adamant the new architecture has delivered "real business benefits", but did warn that quantifying the benefits of an SOA is "quite difficult" and "very few people have done it".

For specific business needs like financial planning, SOAs can be quantified, but the overall SOA architecture is harder to put a return on, according to Tham.

"The business saw SOA as a cheap component of an [overall] business case," she said.

Developed in-house with the help of Microsoft, IBM, and a service provider, Tham described the project as an example of "good collaboration", which yielded new tools and ways of providing financial advice.

"Subject to the skills of financial planning [the adviser] could have access to all the tools [which] fit into their business processes," Tham said.

The application is a combination of fat client for offline mode, and a Web-based interface for online mode. Tham said the bank will adopt a flexible approach to Web-based applications, as "the Web is ideal" for some transactions, but for others a rich client experience is a better fit.

"You can implement an SOA in a specific project - which is what we did - or you can implement a set of well-defined services," she said.

"For example, Internet banking or, in our case, an application for external financial planning. An SOA is useful for developing tools."

Tham believes that an SOA relates to "a different philosophy for writing and deploying applications".

"If the whole organization embraces SOA it becomes a different way to implement business functionality [and] allows IT services to be deployed in a more dynamic way," she said.