Are you in point-to-point hell? It's how Aaron Kumove, managing director of Wellington-based Horizon Consulting, describes the Sisyphean task most organizations face of managing the connections between their various IT systems.
It's easy to draw a comparison between the legendary Greek king condemned to roll a stone uphill only to have it roll back down and IT staff constantly fixing connections to keep separate systems talking to each other.
Is there a magical solution to the problem? No, but EAI or electronic application integration software is a practical start, says Kumove, a former CIO at New Zealand Post and e-business consultant at KPMG.
In most organizations IT infrastructure has been built department by department -- inventory, HR, finance. Making them talk to each other can be very difficult.
"Typically most organizations have built point-to-point links between applications as they needed them. With a small number of systems this is fine, but as you add more systems it becomes fraught as the number of connections grows much faster than the number of systems. Each new connection becomes more complex and you need more resources to manage them, diagnose faults, and maintain them. In terms of a massively scalable solution in an interconnected economy, it's not the way to go."
Kumove says links between internal systems aren't even the real issue. It's connecting with each other that will be of vital importance as we move to an "electronically interconnected economy."
"The challenge for a lot of organizations is that their legacy infrastructure wasn't designed for this. They are struggling with how to retool themselves for an electronically interconnected economy. This is where EAI and integration technologies come in."
EAI introduces an alternative model to point-to-point connections. Systems are connected to a broker which mediates all "conversation". The number of connections is reduced to the number of systems. They're all consistent and all speak in the same way to a broker.
"We haven't got different protocols and it's a much more manageable solution with a reduction in complexity and in operational management costs.
"The biggest win is the strategic flexibility you get -- the ability to change according to business direction, accommodate new business partners and get things to market."
A broker or EAI solution usually presents immediate value but many organizations balk from a cost perspective because to date they've been proprietary and the sticker prices have been high. Kumove concedes that companies have struggled to make the investment worthwhile on a single project. He says the key to building a business case for EAI is to know the cost of integrating any application that you're developing and the cost of managing and maintaining it. Add these together and you should have a basis for comparing point-to-point development cost with an EAI off-the-shelf solution. In some cases you'll find EAI is cheaper on a single project and in some cases it isn't.
Where it's not justifiable on a single project you will get money back on the re-usability front, Kumove says. The real value is on the second or third project. Incremental costs drop dramatically.
"A good software developer, when contracted to build an application, should be able to indicate what percentage of the bill is on functionality and what percentage goes on integrating it into the environment."
IT analysts such as Gartner Group and Forrester suggest that up to 40 percent of the cost of developing a new application is spent on integration.
"So any thing you can do to cut into that is going to be a win," says Kumove. "On a one-off basis a point-to-point approach can be a quick way to get that done. If you're in a complex environment with dozens of systems it can be very expensive. There's more to connect to, a lot more to test and greater management overheads."
What about concerns that companies could be locked into a proprietary solution? Historically, EAI has been around for quite a long time in the form of messaging and then middleware, but the big difference is that its proprietary nature -- and high cost -- is being eaten away, he says. Web services seem to be the key to this by standardizing the functional stack, and as they do they are commoditizing messaging.
"Middleware vendors can see the writing on the wall and are migrating to business process management -- the ability to draw workflow diagrams which transparently show all the underlying calls through the messaging stack to make business processes happen.
"Web services will cut out what has been a very high-margin market they've had for years."
Not all the Web services standards have been nailed down, he accepts.
"Really it's about whether you should wait for more standards to settle or go now and accept that there are some proprietary elements. But vendors are building Web services interfaces to their proprietary systems. The beauty of the Web services model is that every vendor under the sun is supporting it."
New Zealand is still a fledging market, and by in large the EAI vendors such as Microsoft with Biz Talk, See Beyond and IBM have only started educating the market.
"They're complex products and can be a little bit hard to understand," says Kumove. "There's a learning curve."