Open-Source Revs IT Engines

A boat with a big Mercury outboard motor from Brunswick is so retro. What's hot is the company's open-source business integration engine.

Brunswick's technology division, dubbed WDI, built a BIE to connect Brunswick's dealers to its ERP system. With more than 10,000 dealers and numerous distributors, that was no small task. Adding to that complexity, many are mom-and-pop outlets with legacy IT systems (such as dial-up modems linked to an inventory system on a 386-based PC) that made integration and communication with Brunswick's heavy-duty corporate systems almost impossible. But because of the right technology choices the company made in 2001, the integration work continues to excel today.

Technology incompatibility wasn't the only problem; users at first didn't want to share sales data with Brunswick for fear of being put at a competitive disadvantage, since all of their inventory data, including that from Brunswick's competitors, would be available to the supplier. And there was hesitation as well because most of the businesses had never let their data outside of their companies before. "Today, dealers and suppliers understand they need an integration strategy," says Michele Lambert, general manager at WDI. "They need to cut the cost of re-entering data, faxing purchase orders and handling customer service issues without the appropriate information."

Once on board with the notion of integration, WDI needed to choose a path. But Brunswick's dealers couldn't afford to make the investment in pricey integration tools, says Lambert. You're talking seven figures for integration packages with difficult-to-prove returns on investment.

Electronic data interchange could have been a solution, but with $20,000 monthly transaction fees for EDI, it would be like getting a sunken boat off a sandbar. Possible, but not likely.

Instead, in 2001 Lambert and the Brunswick team decided to develop their own software and make it available through an open-source license. The XML interfaces of WDI's open-source business engine allow a dealer with a 14,000-part inventory to use low-cost computers and a 14.4Kbit/sec. connection to link and share information with Brunswick.

WDI staff selected Java -- mainly because of an abundance of Java programmers -- and wrote to an open-source standard using Business Process Markup Language as the model for business rules. They adopted XML schemas, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol and Directory Services Markup Language. They created open application programming interfaces so that if the business engine didn't support something, it would be simple to add.

Going open-source was important because the free software pushed adoption among dealers and distributors. (WDI makes its money on services.) Also, independent software vendors in the marine industry chose to embed the engine into existing products. And with an open-source product, WDI got lots more community feedback.

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