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And Now For the Heavy Lifting

"Sometimes it felt like a belly flop," Bertch says with a hesitant laugh.

This is the inside story of a midsize fitness club operator that continues to overhaul its application infrastructure to help the company grow 50 percent per year. At the center of that activity is the two-year-old, custom-developed MMS, which Life Time uses to track customer demographics, provide daily field reports for operations managers and finance executives, conduct electronic funds transfer for bill collection, and offer one-second check-in for club members. The system also takes advantage of a Web services platform--built on Java 2 Enterprise Edition tools, a BEA Systems application server and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) interfaces--to connect member records with an ASP-provided online scheduling application.

Life Time's developers define Web services as cross-enterprise application integration in which one application has permission to make calls and pull data from another. This kind of integration will be extended further as the company expands into ancillary markets.

Already a 4,800-employee company headed toward the $200 million revenue mark this year, Life Time aims to become a billion-dollar company in the next few years, not only by adding six clubs each year, but also by selling nutritional supplements, fitness apparel, health magazines and related products to its members, whose numbers grow by some 15,000 per month. Web services let Life Time give partners access to specific data and applications, whereas a VPN (virtual private network) provides all-or-none access to systems behind a firewall, systems architect Gary Lien says. (For a technical walk-through of MMS, see "MMS: The Muscle Behind the Life Time Fitness Machine.")

In many ways, Life Time's risk-taking culture is the ideal setting for one of the first documented trials of cross-enterprise Web services technology. The company isn't overly burdened with legacy systems, so it doesn't have much to lose by tapping Web services to connect with partners. Yet it desperately needs to develop these connections, and fast, to support its aggressive growth plans.

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