Early riders

Mysia Benford's problem was empty trucks. After delivering animal feed to farmers, trucks from her company, Associated British Nutrition and Agriproducts, returned without a load. On the way back, they often met or passed other trucks picking up products the same farmers were selling to ABNA.

The fact that ABNA's customers were also sometimes its suppliers created an opportunity to eliminate some of those 2,000 daily trips, streamline supply chain operations and reduce the US$100 million annually spent on logistics. "If you can minimize empty running, you can take costs out -- that was one of the main drivers for this," says Benford, group information systems and logistics director at ABNA in Peterborough, England.

The challenge was how to integrate a logistics optimization system with ABNA's customer, accounting, trading and business systems (some from acquisitions), running under Unix, Hewlett-Packard's OpenVMS and Microsoft's Windows NT. Because users liked these best-of-breed applications, Benford rejected installing a monolithic ERP system.

She took what she judged to be a simpler, cheaper route: a bus architecture using messaging routers to connect those major systems and enable them to share information -- an integration technology now called the enterprise service bus (ESB). "The messaging approach seemed to be the best solution . . . and it didn't cost a fortune," says Benford, who worked with Sonic Software on the ESB.

ABNA and other early adopters of the ESB approach are seeking the following benefits:

- Interoperability -- the ability to interconnect applications and systems across messaging platforms and operating systems.

- Lower costs: What in the past might have been multimillion-dollar integration projects can cost one-fourth to one-third as much as they once did.

- Simpler development models that rely on standards and are suited to generalist developers.

- Services-oriented architecture, which can harness Web services capabilities.

Turning to integration to streamline operations and save money is nothing new, but today's tightened IT budgets have pushed the trend, says Steve Craggs, a consultant at Saint Consulting, who is vice chairman of the EAI Industry Consortium in Calgary, Alberta. What's new is the messaging technology approach and its ability to retain 80 percent of the power of existing enterprise application integration (EAI) system and add increased capabilities at a comparatively low cost.

"What's really tipped the ESB is the emergence of stronger standards, especially for XML, JMS and Web services," says Roy Schulte, an analyst at Gartner, and the originator of the ESB designation. Improvements in publish-and-subscribe technology and middleware as well as faster networks have boosted real-time connectivity across heterogeneous environments, but it has taken the ESB approach to bring together what Schulte calls the "enterprise nervous system." He predicts that "a majority of large enterprises will have an enterprise bus running by 2005."

"Companies need deeper integration beyond Web services and XML," says Eric Newcomer, chief technology officer at Iona Technologies, which is moving toward an ESB model. "They've built up different middleware using CORBA, application servers, Microsoft .Net and IBM products such as (WebSphere MQ) -- but none of it talks to the other."

Other organizations are using ESBs to extend integration to other departments or functions. "Having mission-critical applications on EAI doesn't stop them from the cheaper ESB approach," adds Craggs.

Generally speaking, an ESB is a modular middleware layer passing data between applications and systems via a bus (or ring) architecture that has a core asynchronous messaging backbone with intelligent transformation and routing for reliability. This contrasts with the traditional hub-and-spokes integration model with passive nodes and intelligent hubs. The ESB depends upon standards-based technologies -- typically, but not always, Java Message Service (JMS), Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) connectors and/or XML document exchange capability.

Services deployed at each application plug into the bus via standards-based connections. Applications can be activated from or to anywhere on the bus, without having to go through a central hub. Despite the reliance on standards, however, vendors have chosen different messaging approaches and features in their ESB bundles. To simplify ESB projects, vendors have added development consoles or dashboards using Java and drag-and-drop features.

ESBs are the "next-generation middleware" that will deliver the same level of integration to midsize companies that larger companies have gotten from application servers for years, says Dennis Byron, an analyst at IDC. "What you're seeing is the natural trend: As technology becomes more mature, it provides the same capability at the lower end of the market and at lower price points."

Several ESB suppliers start single-server licenses at $12,500 to $25,000, although major systems cost about $250,000, plus $150,000 for customization. Still, this represents a fraction of the cost of EAI implementations. The hang-up with EAI isn't the purchase price, explains Byron, but the long implementation times needed by pricey consultants. "A $50 million company can't afford $2 million to customize and implement a proprietary solution," he says.

Nor has it hurt that ESBs can be implemented as projects. "Even though customers envision a pervasive integration network across their enterprises, the funding model today is project-based. Customers buy ESB incrementally," says Gordon Van Huizen, CTO at Sonic Software, an ESB vendor.

Even for relatively big integration efforts at large companies, ESB is paying off, early users say. For example, ABNA, a $1.95 billion arm of $7.2 billion Associated British Foods, had estimated that its IT integration effort could cut 5 percent to 10 percent off a $100 million annual shipping bill; the project has cost about $2.8 million for development, software and hardware. "That's no-brainer ROI," says Benford. "We are proving the technology will work, and we are starting to deliver those savings."

ESB technology has also given ABNA a shipment status notification system in addition to electronic data interchange, and that's important because improved shipment documentation is required as part of the U.K.'s battle against mad cow disease.

Development Simplified

Much of the savings on ESB projects comes from the relative simplicity of ESB development models and tools. "Because we're standards-based, you're writing code to a standard and at the business level," says Ronan Bradley, CEO of PolarLake, which sells the JIntegrator ESB. "We hide all that (complexity) within the platform."

And since development is simpler, fewer programmers are needed -- and they can also be skilled in Java or XML instead of being specialists in proprietary products. "It needs a few people who are highly skilled, but not an army of them -- we're seeing (development) teams that are smaller," says Steve Field, practice director of enterprise integration at Tier1 Innovation, a systems integrator in enver.

In was development hassles that led General American, which provides appraisal and title services for the real estate industry, to consider ESB technology. Whenever one of its thousands of mortgage bank customers requested an electronic link-in, Pittsburgh-based GAC had to shut down its systems, which run a Sybase database and Windows 2000.

"We'd go through this entire project of mapping data fields back and forth, testing, and actually shut down just so we could update our systems to support this new interface," says Chris Behning, senior vice president and CTO at GAC.

Last month, GAC went live with Tifosi Enterprise Integrator from Fiorano Software in the US. After reviewing integration products from IBM, Sybase and others, GAC decided it liked Tifosi's simplified development model and dashboard for designing and deploying the application. GAC tried a proof-of-concept model before installing the $250,000 Tifosi system companywide. Behning also likes the ESB's Web services capability because GAC can use it to set up a standard way for customers to do their own link-ins in the future.

Any ESB discussion quickly turns to Web services. "ESBs will be the primary implementations of Web services. ESBs are how you are going to get Web services, vs. competing with Web services," Schulte says.

And the ESB marketplace will get busier. "With IBM and Microsoft preparing to offer ESBs, this concept will take off quickly," says Schulte, referring to Microsoft Corp.'s rumored Indigo product and IBM's plans to offer an ESB next year.

IBM executives suggest that their services bus will be a variation of the existing WebSphere MQ messaging platform. Interest in the ESB has also spawned a large handful of suppliers and has existing providers announcing new or recast products.

When Central Hudson Gas & Electric needed ESB-style integration, it chose to work with its vendor of 20 years, Software AG. The utility needed an Internet customer billing and information system and a way to better feed outage reports into a new storm management system from GE Power Systems. "Our goal was to improve customer service by providing self-service over the Internet and through an outage management system that predicts the cause of power outages reported by customers," says Central Hudson IT manager Gary Wright.

For Central Hudson, each customer call offloaded to the Internet saves $6 to $7. "Of the 720,000 calls received per year, we estimate 10 percent can be answered online for a potential savings of $500,00 a year or more," Wright says. "We're not looking to reduce staff; our goal is to reduce costs so we can manage growth without increasing resources."

Although Wright considered other integration options, Software AG's EntireX has the messaging communications, and its Tamino product has the XML server capability to connect Web documents. Software AG has long had adaptable messaging and integration, but now its technology matches the ESB buzzword, says Joe Gentry, the vendor's senior director of product marketing.

Customers don't call to buy an ESB: "They call and describe a challenge -- to send information from multiple back-end systems to business partners, or they want to provide a Web interface combining data from multiple sources or that enables customers to manage their accounts," Gentry says. "Right now, that's called an ESB."

ESB Basics

The following are features that characterize enterprise service bus architecture:

- Bus-related messaging engines that provide transformation, XML and intelligent routing services, and the communications bus itself

- Definition tools and repository services

- Administration and management services

- Support for standard forms of connectivity, such as Web services

- Adherence to industry standards

Source: Steve Craggs, vice chairman, EAI Industry Consortium, "Best of Breed ESBs"

Products and Vendors

For a technology that touts standards, the ESB offerings from a variety of vendors are far from standard. Gartner analyst Roy Schulte and other industry watchers generally break suppliers into three groups -- in addition to existing players, which include EAI suite makers.

Heavy Messaging

- Sonic XQ ESB from Sonic Software.

- Tifosi ESB from Fiorano Software.

- JIntegrator from PolarLake.

- SpiritWave from SpiritSoft.

- Artix from Iona Technologies.

- WASP suite from Systinet.

- DE Management Server from Digital Evolution.

In-between

- Composite Application Suite.

- EntireX from Software AG.

- KnowNow Internet Middleware from KnowNow.

- Enterprise Messaging from Tibco Software.

Web Services

- Network Director from Blue Titan Software.

- Cape Clear 4 from Cape Clear Software.

Integration Players

- IBM has said it will offer bus technology by next year, probably as an update to its WebSphere MQ messaging platform for a service-oriented architecture.

- Microsoft is also expected by analysts to offer ESB functionality in its Web services framework code-named Indigo.

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