Early enterprise application integration (EAI) mostly involved gluing together various vendors' applications. The EAI vendor sent you an adapter for your enterprise resource planning module and your e-commerce application and voila! They began sharing data.
Now users are looking to take a leap into the scary world of integrating homegrown applications and systems that have one foot in the tar pits. No vendor builds out-of-the-box products to do this, meaning users will be responsible for much of the work.
"You've got to make sure you pick a vendor who will work with you, because chances are that you're attempting something they've never done before," says John Stroker, director of information and planning at Palace Resorts Inc. in Miami. "At least nothing exactly like it."
What users are finding is that such work can be done, but it requires patience and careful planning. The companies profiled here are tackling what might be considered next-generation EAI.
When Palace Resorts wrote its initial hotel booking and yield management applications in 1985, Web access wasn't on the priority list. The company wrote the applications for its eight hotels in Cancun, Mexico, using Miami-based Data Access Corp.'s DataFlex Unix programming language.
But Web access was essential in 2001 when the hotelier wanted to create hotel and airfare travel packages for its guests. That meant unlocking the Unix-based information at three locations in Cancun and a central server farm in Miami. In addition, Palace needed to link to Fort Worth, Texas-based Sabre Inc.'s global travel distribution database to find airfares.
"We not only had to coordinate all these applications in real time, but we had to do it over distance," says John Stroker, director of information and planning at Palace Resorts.
He also didn't have millions of bucks to throw at the project, he adds.
"If we had to go back and look at changing our legacy systems, it would have driven the cost way out of sight," he says. "The reality of our business is that it relies on handwritten applications, and we need to find ways of extending those applications."
Stroker chose an update of the old screen-scrape. Using the OnWeb product from Cupertino, Calif.-based NetManage Inc., Palace reached into its Compaq Computer Corp. ProLiant servers, grabbed the appropriate room-availability, pricing and customer loyalty numbers and then converted them into HTML Web pages.
"Once you get the information to your Web server, you're fine," Stroker says. "Then it's just a matter of writing rules and presenting it."
He underscores that real-time data is the trick. "We can't afford to create [resort] packages with bad or dated information," Stroker says. "That's asking for trouble."
The system even determines whether the customer is a tour operator and then selects the appropriate Cancun- or Miami-based legacy server from which to draw the information.
The project took nine months to complete, and the new Web-booking system went live in October last year. Stroker says he expects to see a return on the project's $900,000 investment within 18 months.
Back to the Future
Take the following ingredients: a 15-year-old IBM 3090 mainframe housing a Siebel Systems Inc. customer information system; a 7-year-old Sybase Inc. database for sales orders; and an Oracle8i order-entry system for the call center, with a Web interface built on Microsoft Active Server Pages.
Instructions: Fuse into a single ordering and customer information system that can also be extended to cover distributor sales.
That's the project that faced telecommunications provider Cable and Wireless USA Inc.'s IT department. To add to the complication, "the people who developed those legacy systems are no longer here," says T. Minh Tran, senior IT director.
Ultimately, the job required multiple data transformations and the ability to process hundreds of data requests almost instantaneously.
Using the EAI broker from webMethods Inc., the Cable & Wireless IT team figured out a way to work with two parallel back ends at once.
The first step was to build a Java-based order-entry form that mirrored the mainframe order-entry form.
The next step was to get the information to the EAI layer. Brad Allen, a senior systems analyst, says the team built a Dynamic Link Library (DLL) in Component Object Model (COM) so the front end could speak with the webMethods transformation engine.
"But you can't expose a DLL to Java," he says. So embedded within the COM objects was a webMethods client that provided hooks to Java application program interfaces.
Then came the tricky part. Once a data packet hits the central order-processing servers, the system needs to determine where to send that packet.
Information headed to the mainframe needs to be retranslated for socket-based messaging while other databases process Java Developer Byte Code.
"The broker has nodes that transmit to other brokers," says IT scientist David Green. "The idea is to push through the proper information using your legacy procedure, but to separate out the complexity of your legacy procedure for the people using the system."
Green describes the webMethods layer as a shield that protects those using the Web pages from the peculiarities of the legacy system.
Yet nothing shields the IT department. Green notes that integration projects create tons of traffic behind the firewall. "A simple order will generate about 100 transactions," he says. "A larger order can generate upwards of a thousand."
That creates the need to monitor everything in the IT architecture. A webMethods event tracker can be used to follow event traffic on various servers, but that doesn't cover network traffic or the I/O capability of the mainframe. "We've just built it, and we're really still learning how to monitor the system," Green says. "You can imagine the complexity of what's going on when something goes wrong."
Yet Tran says that such integration projects are the only way his team can justify the expense of adding new applications to Cable & Wireless' business.
"We can't afford to build systems that don't work with our legacy [systems] anymore," he says. "There are a lot of revenue-generating systems that we still have, and we need to figure out ways to keep using them."
Motorola Inc. Chief Technical Officer Toby Redshaw puts "smart people to do the work" at the top of his integration checklist.
Motorola has a huge EAI implementation base. "We've got somewhere in the low four digits of adapters and connectors set up," Redshaw says. "We can make what I call the eight-minute egg. It takes us eight minutes to create the adapter/connector in most cases, and it takes a good staff to do it."
Yet some eggs take longer to cook, and that's when it pays to have a few master chefs on the premises.
Much of the order-entry information for Motorola's pager manufacturing unit was written using software from now-defunct FourGen Software Inc. and housed on an Informix database. Motorola wanted to integrate that data with its Java-coded Unit Personality Data warehouse, which contains the passwords and permissions for the company's employees.
IT staffers had used Java Native Interface for the personality data warehouse, which would allow it to interoperate with applications coded in C, C++ or assembly language.
"Unfortunately, FourGen objects don't act like C objects," says Motorola IT architect Seshu Duvvapu. And Motorola's EAI vendor, Fairfax, Va.-based webMethods Inc., didn't have an out-of-the-box adapter for the FourGen objects.
The only way Duvvapu was going to get the job done was to find different code. The FourGen applications were running Hewlett-Packard Co. Unix servers, so Duvvapu decided to compile the FourGen code using Unix Object Code.
Once he did that, he linked it to the webMethods integration broker and tied in the paging business systems with the rest of Motorola's IT infrastructure.
"For years, the FourGen system was a complete silo," Duvvapu says. The project took two months to complete because Duvvapu had to make sure the FourGen applications shared the correct information with other applications. "But once you get it to the integration layer, it's fairly easy," he says.
EAI manager Charles Soto says the adapters and connectors shuttling between Motorola's applications have changed the way the IT organization works.
"Now we're talking more about consolidation and integration instead of having to turn the world upside down," he says. "It saves a lot of time and money if you don't have to rebuild everything."