SSA eases tie-in to third-party software

System Software Associates (SSA) plans to ship middleware that's supposed to make it easier for users to tie the vendor's financial and manufacturing applications to supply-chain planning tools and other products.

Larger enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, from SAP AG on down, are also opening up to outside software through high-level application programming interfaces that users or third-party vendors can use to create links to other applications. But SSA is doing hands-on development of gateways to other packages and then promising to support those combinations.

Easier integration is especially important to SSA's users because big losses have left the Chicago-based company unable to match SAP and other ERP heavyweights that are building their own applications for jobs such as supply-chain planning and customer relationship management.

SSA's gateways have "been overdue for years," said Allan Sylvester, director of information technology at Pluess-Staufer Industries Inc. in Proctor, Vermont. The limestone mining company uses SSA's Business Planning and Control System (BPCS) to process orders and manage inventories.

Pluess-Staufer had to do its own development work to tie SSA's software to data analysis tools and to a Lotus Notes application that sends order verifications and other documents to customers via e-mail or fax.

But Sylvester said he expects to get prebuilt interfaces to a third-party, bar-code system that will let warehouse workers update BPCS directly from their forklifts. "That could save me both time and money," he said.

SSA is a second-tier ERP vendor with about 6,500 installations that mostly run on IBM AS/400 systems. It had revenue of US$421 million in the fiscal year ending last October. But quality problems and delays on a client/server rewrite of BPCS sent the vendor into a tailspin that led to layoffs, a management overhaul and a $129 million loss last year.

Its gateway technology has been available for several years to users who wanted to develop their own links to other applications. Now, SSA is releasing a set of 48 interfaces that tie planning and analysis tools from a half-dozen vendors to BPCS.

SSA is working on about 80 other packaged interfaces with about 25 vendors. The plans were announced earlier this month along with a server-based BPCS upgrade.

A big unknown is whether SSA can support a mix of BPCS and outside software and keep it all synchronized for users, said Jim Holincheck, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Earlier tries by Oracle Corp. and Baan Co. to tie together batches of applications were "certainly instructive about how hard it is to do this," Holincheck said.

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