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Trend spotlight: integration platforms for services/APIs

Using and providing digital services on demand

09/2018 – Since July, developers have been able to access internal and external services with which new solutions are created better, faster and more affordably on the "Business Hub" integration platform. This creates a central space where APIs can be developed and published in the Group.

When programming apps and web applications, similar functions are often needed repeatedly. That is why the Business Hub was set up to save resources, give employees more flexibility and most importantly, to complete customer projects more quickly.

Julius Meinung, Business Hub project manager, DB Systel
© DB Systel GmbH

The name of this new service portfolio already gives an idea of what’s behind it. It is intended primarily for the development of new digital business. But the term hub hints at the fact that it is not just about business. A hub is a junction. In other words, it creates a meeting point, a centre or focus. The name is well-chosen as the Business Hub links various DB internal services with services outside of the Deutsche Bahn Group.

It created the basis for future faster and more effective developments of optimum (digital) services for our customers. “For us, the new platform was primarily about improving workflows by building on existing datasets and uniform processes,” explained Julius Meinung, Business Hub project manager at DB Systel.

The API platform as a digital marketplace

The Business Hub is the logical improvement of a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which DB Systel has been using for some time now. Wikipedia defines SOA as allowing the integration of services “provided to the other components by application components [and a] service presents a simple interface to the requester that abstracts away the underlying complexity acting as a black box.  The reusability of services in particular ensures greater efficiency and flexibility. However, with SOA it is primarily the internal view of developments that is served. With the Business Hub the view to and from the outside is made possible, in order to take standardised APIs (application programming interface) and put together entirely new applications as well as to develop new business models together with the customers. APIs make it possible to integrate existing functions or data into other programmes. This ensures a stronger networking, both internally as well as with partners and allows completely new digital solutions.

The range of services in the Business Hub is therefore made up of two separate components: the Service Factory (Service Development “Dev” & Runtime Operations “Ops”), a combined service from one market service and an internal database, allows the quick development and operation of new services. The management, monitoring, but also the publication of the APIs is, in turn, controlled via the API platform (Business Hub Connect) in the self-service portal.

The Business Hub as a platform: development of services, specialist advice, technical implementation, operation and administration in the self-service.

@ DB Systel GmbH

Even with the Open API Portal developer.deutschebahn.com (German only) developers were able to access APIs and use them for their projects. And the data.deutschebahn.com data portal facilitates the use of internal Group data. The Business Hub will link these tasks and form the basis of all digital activities. This grants access to data such as “all train stations in Germany” or functions such as “check an IBAN number for its validity” by API. Many online services make such APIs available allowing developers to integrate information such as weather data or conversion rates from established service providers into their own services and applications. “In the past we often developed such services ourselves, after all, we are the experts,” says Thomas Vollmer, Business Hub doServices Product Owner.

However, such a course of action is not always the most economical approach. That’s why the team of the Business Hub is continuously checking whether there are market solutions that can be integrated. “We came across the topic of API as we observed the market. We were able to make integration work with the Business Hub.” On the new platform, further services are gradually offered and made available via APIs. Just picture the API platform as a digital marketplace, where the application programming interfaces are on display. Customers and developers can see, among other things, which functions an API has to offer or what costs are incurred during use. Furthermore: many functions of the APIs can be tried out on a test console. Upon request, the APIs can then be integrated into systems.

We came across the topic of API as we observed the market. We were able to make integration work with the Business Hub.

Thomas Vollmer, doServices Product Owner, DB Systel

If the required services are not available in the market, they will be integrated from Group services or developed internally and then optimised in such a way as to allow for them to be used in other developments again where possible. “A booking system in itself is not really that spectacular. But if we combine the timetable data with the data of hotels, Wi-Fi services and an external weather information system, we create an added value for our customers,” said Julius Meinung.

The API Portal of the Business Hub allows access to internal and external digital services. The comprehensive description shows users the content of an API as well as the terms and conditions for their use.

© DB Systel GmbH

In order to ensure this, with the Business Hub it is important to reuse expertise and developments, with payment options for the end customers, for example. An entirely different example is the development of the budget mobility app, with which an employee can get a discount on designated amounts for individual journeys with vehicles from sharing providers or public transport.

More efficient development

The Business Hub is ushering in technical change: instead of developing a program to order, as used to be the case, customers will now receive a service integration tailored to them via standardised and reusable modules. For this the Business Hub is to offer three options: A suitable external service, which can be made available via the Business Hub, exists. An internal service exists. A customised service has to be developed and programmed. For all three options it is fundamentally the goal to create highly reusable services, as this allows costs and development time to be reduced right from the start.

The Business Hub platform (centre) allows for two different developments: the customer (left) is the business owner and would like to use a new solution made up of existing components. Or, both external and internal API owners (right) can provide and monetise their data and services to other users via the platform.

© DB Systel GmbH

If a customer wants an application to be developed, the Business Hub makes DB Systel much faster. If there is already an appropriate service for partial functions, this can be easily obtained and integrated. “That’s the global story. We are moving away from the provider who putters away in the data centre, and towards an integrator of services,” Thomas Vollmer summarised the development. But the Business Hub is asset not only for DB Systel. The customers’ ideas can be validated and tested more quickly and more simply. This allows customer requirements to be more quickly fulfilled. And of course, services are made available more quickly by combining internal and external services.

Making the most of digitalisation

It’s all about understanding the customer’s business in order to make opportunities provided by digitalisation work for business success. “We do not only advise our customers as far as technical aspects go, i.e. how they can integrate a service that we have developed. We speak to the customer about how they can make their business grow by using certain services,” said Julius Meinung. The official go-ahead for the new platform is in autumn 2018 and some initial developments will already be visible and usable by then. And then we will see whether the Business Hub is just another market place for digital ideas or rather an interactive showcase of a new kind of collaboration.