Cloud computing projects: How Boeing, Trimble got PaaS going with SOA

At WSO2Con 2013 in San Francisco, enterprise architects from Boeing and Trimble Navigation discussed their cloud computing use.

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In the early days of cloud computing projects, platform as a service (PaaS) was perceived as a way for dedicated providers to offer functionality on demand. Now, major enterprises look at using PaaS concepts to expand their core competencies, improve engagement with existing customers and provide new revenue streams. At the recent WSO2 Developer's Conference in San Francisco, enterprise architects from the Boeing Co. and Trimble Navigation Ltd. elaborated on this vision.

cloud in the palm of a man's hand

Boeing, for example, is using service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles behind a new PaaS platform. Called The Boeing Edge, the system promises to reshape the way Boeing connects with its customers in the airline business, said Jim Crabbe, senior product manager at Boeing.

PaaS enables a paradigm change, bringing continuous improvement in products and services that solve problems for its staff and customers, Crabbe said. "Just forklifting something into the cloud does not give you the most value. You need to architect your application for the cloud," he explained.

The Boeing Edge ties together Boeing information services for a variety of customer needs. Material services focus on delivering the right part at the right time. Fleet services focus on maintenance needs of airlines. The idea is to help airlines where all of the data from the airlines is integrated to help them make real-time decisions about revenue and passengers, ground operations, flight operations, and maintenance. For example, Boeing recently went to market with an iPad app to help line mechanics turn planes around faster. As a result, at the end of the year, they may get more runs off of each plane.

The PaaS platform needed an SOA infrastructure to support the wide disparities between the IT systems of different airlines. Crabbe said some airlines have older systems that work well, and the cost of moving to new platforms could be disruptive. At the same time, airlines want to leverage new technologies, but are capital constrained. Boeing is positioning the PaaS to move data and assemble applications to create better processes and workflows that can cut costs.

Navigating organizational boundaries with SOA and PaaS

SOA has played a key role in Trimble Navigation's build of an internal- and customer-facing development platform called Trimble Platform-as-a-Service (TPaaS), according to WSO2Con speaker Prakash Iyer, Trimble vice president of software architecture and strategy. The location services provider's product offers an architectural framework to build apps in SOA.

Just forklifting something into the cloud does not give you the most value.

Jim Crabbe,
senior product manager at Boeing

Getting internal staff to use and reuse the same development platform is the primary project goal, but getting to that point has required organizational change. For instance, there was no single software engineer overseeing development throughout the company. Instead, every division had its own structure and developers.

Trimble consists of a number of smaller divisions each controlling research and development, sales and marketing in several business units, each focused on a vertical market, including agriculture, heavy civil construction and transportation and logistics and more. The corporate backbone has been mostly focused on consistency and providing platforms for support and taxation. "This creates a unique problem around supporting great market solutions, which have been somewhat silo-ed," says Iyer.

Consolidating on one development platform meant deciding who would build it, who owned shared components and which group or employees would be responsible for maintaining, enhancing and supporting the shared infrastructure.

Know what can be shared in cloud computing projects

The project's vision was that TPaaS could act as a gateway to share any Trimble service for wider reuse, such as reverse geocoding. For example, Trimble has five implementations of reverse geocoding services in production today. "One of the things we can do with this platform is take the best one and put it into a framework that anyone can reuse," Iyer says.

A good platform provides the building blocks required for a solution. This allows you to focus on the things that differentiate your business, like providing great telematics or a great connected agricultural community, rather than focusing on improving the identity manager.

It is also a good practice to start with a market-focused service. For example, with asset management, the construction industry has a slightly different idea than someone in field services. Some of the elements are similar, such as how you manage and store the data and leverage RFID codes to tag the assets. Iyer says they have been working with the idea of developing core components that can be reused across these different applications.

Then there are other shared services around infrastructure that can be reused across all of the apps, like monitoring, auto-scaling and service metering. This allows the development of market-facing applications and features that do not require a lot of time and resources for a new underlying infrastructure.

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Iyer's team uses a modular development approach, identifying individual problems and then building components to support it. The first platform Trimble created included an identity manager and enterprise service bus (ESB). Then, the team built applications on that platform. This can help create momentum; stakeholders got quick access to application features instead of waiting for the release of one big system.

Ease of customization, community support and lower cost led Iyer's team to use open source tools in the TPaaS project. Open source tools make it easy to customize components without involving the whole system. Past experience with major vendors' high up-front and ongoing services costs also made open source attractive. On the community site, Trimble's team has been able to get answers to many questions on the WSO2 blog. WSO2 is an open source middleware vendor.

Licensing models can be the gotcha in working with open source in cloud computing projects, Iyer warned. Read the license terms carefully. "We have gotten bit a few times in smaller instances, where our work would also become open source," he said. "Make sure the licensing model is right so you can use it, but don't lose your proprietary advantage."

What three challenges have you encountered in cloud computing projects and why? The first one to respond will receive a $10 Starbucks card (U.S. only). Email us: Web-editor@searchsoa.com

About the authors:
Jan Stafford plans and oversees strategy and operations for TechTarget's Application Development Media Group. She has covered the computer industry for the last 20-plus years, writing about everything from personal computers to operating systems to server virtualization to application development.

George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco. Over the last 15 years, he's written more than 2,000 articles on computers, communications, business and other topics. Find out more at glawton.com.

Follow us on Twitter at @SearchSOA and like us on Facebook.

This was first published in November 2013

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