Theme park operator Ardent Leisure has deployed an on-premise Oracle middleware stack to support its push towards the cloud.
The company, which owns Dreamworld, Whitewater World, AMF Bowling, Good Life gyms and D’Albora Marinas, among other properties, spent the last few years consolidating its enterprise apps as it prepared to adopt cloud services.
Ardent moved its Preceda payroll application from an on-premise data centre back to the supplier as a network service and in February 2012, signed on for Taleo’s e-recruitment on-boarding engine.
By May, Ardent became one of the first Australian customers for Oracle’s wider Fusion HCM suite. Taleo and Fusion HCM — both owned by Oracle — are delivered as-a-service.
Roger Franklin, Enterprise Systems Manager at Ardent Leisure is a fan of SaaS applications.
But in the few months since adopting the as-a-service solutions, Franklin has learned that a successful enterprise SaaS implementation requires some hard work on-premise.
“We signed up to Fusion HCM May 30th; we started configuring June 1,” he said. “If that was an on-premise model, it would take three months just to get the hardware.”
One of the key considerations is master data. In the case of Ardent’s project, it's employee data – but the lessons can be applied more broadly.
Ardent employs over 8000 Australians, 80 percent of whom are casual or seasonal workers. Data about those 8000 employees had to be loaded into the Fusion HCM system.
What happens if a HR manager makes a change to an employee record that other systems need to know about? Would the payroll system (hosted by a separate cloud service) know that an employee has been dismissed?
Would Ardent's in-house JD Edwards accounting system know that an expense reimbursement was requested in Fusion HCM?
It’s one of the fundamental issues iTnews attempted to raise 12 months ago with the release of the ‘Which Clouds Play Nice’ report, and it is still an issue to be grappled with.
“If you update an address in Fusion HCM, it says thanks, I’ve updated it,” says Franklin. “But it doesn't update our payroll system – which is difficult to do in real time for a number of technical reasons. This is one of the joys of how the cloud is currently configured."
The cloud and middleware
It may be a little disheartening for cloud purists to note that the answer for Ardent was middleware.
The company needed one place where master data can be accessed by multiple applications, and with today’s architecture, that one place had to be on-premise.
“When you’re operating in a cloud environment, you can only provision through middleware. Taleo and Fusion can’t reach into our [on-premise] systems,” Franklin said.
Ardent purchased Oracle’s entire middleware stack - including SOA (Service Orientated Architecture), BPM (Business Process Management), BAM (Business Activity Monitoring) and WebCenter (portals).
“Operating in a SaaS environment is a little bit like buying Microsoft Excel," Franklin said. "If it does everything you need out of the box, fantastic.
"But if you want it to talk to anything else in the business, you have to start using web services. Web services can reach out and provision all systems with the same information.
“Things like a staff member’s address is a timely piece of information. If it needs to be updated, it has to be updated in multiple systems at the same time, and that process has to be monitored and controlled.”
Ardent uses an SOA layer as the “connection layer” – to expose, for example, the name and address of somebody.
“We exposed through web services the change of address functionality such that now, if you make a change in Fusion HCM, it automatically updates in Preceda and JDE near-instantly,” he said.
To monitor and control this business process, Ardent uses BAM. It provides the visibility to make sure any changes to the data are reflected in all the relevant systems
BAM sends a message – think of it like a ping test – to the relevant systems to ensure they accepted the change, and re-tries a set amount of times (three, for example) before it sets an alarm for system administrators.
“Without using BAM, you submit a change and you are never actually sure if it worked or not,” Franklin says.
Ardent also uses Oracle’s WebCenter portal to expose features and data from both its newer cloud apps and its older on-premise systems – all on the one intranet dashboard.
As a general rule, Franklin said Ardent will choose middleware for the automating of master data management and for any process that involves multiple authorisations.
He notes that Oracle has a rich set of Web Services tools available, with Taleo being “mature” and Fusion HCM “almost perfect” in terms of application connectivity. “Middleware allows us to wire these systems together in a way we want to wire them,” Franklin said.
But his enthusiasm does come with some qualifications. Web services standards dictate that a software vendor should maintain an API in subsequent releases, even if more APIs are added or modified, to ensure any extensions or connections developed by customers remain intact.
But 'should' is probably not good enough for managing risk around mission critical systems.
“Once you are in the cloud, you are really at the beck and call of the vendor to make those connections available to you,” Franklin noted.
Read on for more SaaS lessons...