Saddled with an aging proprietary software system that was a financial drain and a barrier to entering new markets, Collect America knew it had to make a dramatic shift in its IT strategy.
And shift it did. The company, a provider of asset management services and financial products, undertook a two-year, $20 million re-engineering effort that saw the dismantling of its 13-year-old legacy systems and the construction of an SOA-based infrastructure and applications built using various components of Oracle's Fusion Middleware 11g line.
"We felt we had to make this decision and to base it around a Services Oriented Architecture approach, so we could adapt the business more quickly by enabling multiple product lines," said Jennifer Briscoe, chief technology officer and vice president with Collect America. "We specialize in credit card debt, but we wanted to move into other lines of asset classes such as medical debt and auto loans."
Briscoe played a central role in the decision-making and implementation processes.
Before deciding on Fusion Middleware 11g, however, Collect America conducted a full-blown industry analysis of all available commercial software capable of handling the range of asset management functionality it needed. Collect America was interested not just in the collection side of asset management but the purchasing side for tasks such as loading debt and tracking liquidation and forecasting, Briscoe said.
Another challenge in selecting the right software was the company's business model. Collect America uses its network of franchisees as a way to collect debt, a unique approach within the industry, according to Briscoe.
"We don't actually collect the debt but just supply the information to a network of franchisees and agencies across the country," she explained. "They actually use our software to collect the debt. We found it impossible to find off-the-shelf software to do all this in the way we wanted, as well as getting into other asset classes."
With little to no packaged software available, Collect America looked at technologies it could use to build its own solutions from scratch. It first looked at a number of SOA-flavored open source offerings and did a cost analysis of open source software stacks compared with commercially supported stacks, including Oracle's. The analysis came out "about even," Briscoe said, with a slight advantage going to Oracle.
But price wasn't the only factor in deciding to go with Fusion Middleware 11g.
"Part of it was price, but part of it was Oracle offering an integrated stack from development to deployment," Briscoe said. "With open source, you tend to have to piece together a lot of things yourself, and so you spend a lot of time on plumbing rather than coding your business logic."
Another factor working against open source solutions was the lack of "deep expertise" in SOA-based software stacks and tool sets needed to create the products Collect America needed, she said.
Some of the key Fusion Middleware 11g components Collect America included were JDeveloper and the Application Development Framework (ADF) for Java applications development. It also used the WebLogic Server as the foundation for its Web tier and Oracle's SOA Suite to underlie its application tier.
As if ripping and replacing a legacy system wasn't enough risk to take on,Collect America chose ADF while it was still in its beta cycle. But in so doing, Briscoe believed her company would get more technical support from Oracle, in whose best interest it was to get real-world feedback from Collect America on the technology.
The company currently uses the 10g version of Oracle's flagship database to handle both online transaction processing and its data warehouse systems and has no immediate plans to migrate to the 11g version.
Collect America worked with both Oracle's technical support organization and ECS Team, a professional services firm, to implement the solution. Greg Opie, director of solutions architecture at ECS, said he hoped the experience he had with Collect America's SOA-based implementation might ease concerns among other IT organizations skeptical about that technology working at the enterprise level.
"I have been with a few enterprise accounts who worry SOA doesn't really work," Opie said. "But in this case, it was a good approach because SOA enabled changes to be adopted on the fly while still keeping the project on schedule. Plus, we were able to reuse some of the services that were already built, and so we went to market so they could stay competitive."
Collect America is satisfied with the way the new Oracle products worked with the patchwork of systems used by franchisees across its network. Briscoe said the new Fusion Middleware products typically exchange data with products from 20 different vendors
"The integration aspect of this is extremely key," she said. "Anything we could get out of the box that didn't need too much tweaking gave us a huge productivity gain and made a big difference in bringing the project in on time and on budget."