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Web services and service-oriented architectures lead to shorter development cycles for bank IT departments.

The technology landscape at Banknorth (Portland, Maine; $26 billion in assets) consists of "a couple hundred different applications running on a variety of platforms," says John Petrey, executive vice president and chief information officer. "They were written in different languages, and they were written with different databases, varying from VSAM on the mainframe to Oracle to SQL to MySQL to Pervasive SQL to Sybase - you name it."

Similarly, the hardware inventory includes an IBM zSeries mainframe running OS/390; HP, Sun and IBM machines running Unix; Intel machines running Linux; and Windows servers. "Bottom line," Petrey says, "it's a highly heterogeneous technology environment."

To many banking executives, Petrey's description should sound quite familiar. Between bank mergers, shifting economic conditions and rapidly evolving IT strategies, few banks have had the appetite to untangle the morass of legacy systems running their businesses. But that's not holding up innovation, thanks in part to the increased adoption of Web services and its conceptual cousin, the services-oriented architecture (SOA).

Just as a storage area network provides virtualized storage not dependent upon a specific storage device, and just as grid computing provides virtualized processing not dependent upon a specific computer, an SOA provides virtualized application functionality that does not depend upon a specific block of computer code. "Instead of having a whole bunch of different applications on different computers, you have business services that represent several different underlying applications," explains Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at Waltham, Mass.-based ZapThink.

Getting from Point A to Point B requires legacy applications to be wrapped within a layer of code so that they become Web services-enabled, using either of the two leading protocols: Microsoft .NET or Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). In many cases, systems providers are wrapping their own products. Then, the resulting Web services are made accessible via a middleware and messaging layer. Put it all together, and you have a services-oriented architecture.

Developers are the first to notice the benefits of working with an SOA. Through a Web services interface, it's easier to bypass the underlying complexities and system dependencies of a given application, thus saving time and effort. "It means you build better systems, and it means you're more likely to get a successful system out the door," says Dave West, group manager, industry solutions, for IBM's (Armonk, N.Y.) Rational Software business unit, which provides software prototyping and development tools.

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