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Raymond James Launches Into SOA

What started as a relaunch of its outdated Investor Access client Web portal morphed into the transformative adoption of service-oriented architecture at Raymond James Financial Services.

What became a two-year SOA sojourn for Raymond James Financial began simply enough, recalls Mark Abbott, the financial adviser's SVP of strategy and technology alignment. "In 2007 our client portal, Investor Access, was becoming outdated," he explains. "Although the site was still primarily information-only, the web had evolved, and clients were requesting more features and functionality, such as more advanced statement management tools and improved online bill pay."

While providing richer site features was desirable, the trick was tightly aligning any new capabilities with the Raymond James brand, Abbott relates. "Financial advising is our product, not online day trading," he emphasizes. "So a new portal had to support our advisers rather than getting in the way of their client relationships." According to Raymond James. its broker-dealer subsidiaries support more than 5,300 financial advisers, who serve from more than 2,300 locations throughout the U.S., Canada and the world approximately 1.9 million accounts with total assets of about $242 billion.

To kick off the portal refresh, Raymond James first formed a core IT team of about a dozen staffers in mid-2007. Then the firm's financial advisers and end-user clients were surveyed extensively. "We learned that portal self-enrollment and improved access to our investment research would be a boon to advisers and clients alike," says Abbott. "Account aggregation and more robust reporting options were also on the list."

Enabling such capabilities required drawing on as many as 12 different internal databases, adds Chad Miller, Raymond James' senior database administrator. "The project covered a lot of the waterfront in terms of the data we'd need to provide," he says. "We have Microsoft SQL Server running on Windows boxes as well as data on our HP NonStop mainframe. And there is a pocket of Oracle for international activities."

With the project's goals and requirements established, selecting a technology platform was next on the to-do list. "We evaluated portals we could buy, but none of them met our needs," Abbott reports. "Ultimately, we realized that providing the necessary functionality would require an entirely new platform."

SOA to the Rescue

In early 2008 Raymond James decided to build an SOA-enabled solution in-house. "We committed to making a major investment in [service-oriented architecture]," Abbott affirms. "Although our development cycle is normally 10 months, the decision to adopt SOA meant this project would take longer," he acknowledges.

Using a modified waterfall model, or sequential software development process, work proceeded during 2008 and relied on a raft of Microsoft tools, including .NET for the front end framework, BizTalk Server for services orchestration and Visual Studio for development, according to Abbott. "Because a much richer set of client account information would be exposed, combined with the self-enrollment functionality, we also needed a more advanced security layer," he says, noting that Raymond James eventually deployed EMC's RSA Access Manager.

Usability studies, Abbott continues, were conducted throughout development. "Among other things, we recorded the facial features of clients using prototypes," he reveals. "This assured we could see both approval and pain, even when users weren't voicing it."

Given the scope of the project, Abbott estimates dozens of Raymond James' 850-employee IT staff contributed. "For significant development initiatives, we use a 'project room' model," he explains. "Project team members temporarily relocate to a designated room, while still keeping their regular workstations. That way, a software engineer can just look across the table to get immediate input from, say, a database administrator. The model has proven so effective that project rooms were booked all day, every day."

By early 2009 load testing began and continued through several iterations. In addition to HP's LoadRunner, Miller says, his team leveraged Precise Transaction Performance Management by Precise Software to uncover and correct hidden database bottlenecks. In addition, the tool helped identify where streamlining could improve performance.

"With Precise, we could drill down to find problematic queries," Miller explains. "This allowed us to fix issues that otherwise might not have surfaced with traditional CPU load testing. In addition, we fine-tuned processes to enable databases to serve up information very quickly. As a result, during the rollout everything performed spectacularly from a database perspective."

Just Browsing

Despite having a solid back end, tech support lines still lit up upon go-live in late August 2009. "Although there were no capacity issues, about 7 percent of those attempting to self-enroll experienced failures," concedes Abbott. "Since self-enrollment drew far more volume than anticipated, the relatively small percentage of failures generated a flood of support calls."

Pouring over logs generated by TeaLeaf Technology's web analytics solution quickly revealed two separate, non-SOA culprits: legacy browsers and tabbed browsing, Abbott reports. "We were surprised by the number of people who were using archaic browsing solutions," he admits. To discourage legacy system usage, an automatic browser-checker was added.

For tabbed browsing, the problem was that switching tabs during the enrollment process disrupted the session state, Abbott explains. "The fix was creating a routine to hide the rest of a user's tabs while they are enrolling," he says. "In all, it only took us about a week to identify and resolve both go-live issues."

While utilization of the relaunched portal is running about 25 percent higher than previously, Abbott says, the most important benefit of the project is the successful enterprise SOA adoption. "The service layer is highly reusable," he asserts. "For example, we're using it to develop our next-generation Adviser Desktop portal for our financial advisers. Reusing the services layer permitted our Adviser Desktop team to build a prototype in a matter of weeks."

Adds Abbott, "This ability to reuse services is helping us turn software development into a more repeatable and efficient process. Leveraging SOA is beginning to dramatically accelerate product development enterprisewide."

Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio

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