Integration keys smart business decisions

Some analysts suggest that for any B2B project you will spend 75 cents out of each dollar budgeted on applications-integration issues. Although this is enough to attract the attention of any CFO, the alternative can be even more costly. For example, you can keep submitting orders to your supplier by e-mail or fax and save the integration cost and headache; however, any manual interaction will make your business processes slower and more error-prone, thus weakening your company's competitive advantage.

EAI (enterprise application integration) covers a wide range of technical components and business philosophies that bring together diversified applications, inside and outside your company, to streamline and integrate business processes internally and with outside partners.

So let's look at the problems associated with applications integration and examine possible approaches and solutions.

Only a few years ago integrating applications meant, for most companies, creating a simple data link between two business processes that were not built to work together. Two examples are the creation of GL (general ledger) transactions like salary, superannuation and tax after processing the payroll, and also the updating of the AR (accounts receivable) database with the latest batch of invoices.

What makes EAI so complex and expensive is the number and variety of components involved, such as different operating systems and databases, and the quantity of interactions within your own company or with business partners.

For example, an efficient supply-chain management system can save your company money by streamlining your inventory and increasing your purchasing power. To attain those benefits, you need to link your applications to your supplier; this requires creating connections for each interaction between the two companies.

Obviously, you want these interactions with your business partners to work in real time via the Internet or a dedicated network, because any alternative will defy the purpose of business-to-business integration. Your integrated environment must also include workflow capability along with security and authentication mechanisms to keep your transactions within the limits of the business objectives of your company while enforcing proper controls.

Does your head hurt yet? Luckily, you can get some medication for that headache. In fact, numerous technologies and products can help a company in navigating EAI and creating adequate integration links between applications, regardless of platform or technical differences.

Probably the most important decision in your next EAI project will be choosing the right messaging system to create communication paths between applications.

Your technological moniker is MOM (message-oriented middleware), which is conceptually similar to an e-mail system. You modify the source application to deliver a message whenever an event occurs - for example, when an invoice is created. The target application will read these messages from a queue - the e-mail inbox, in our analogy - and process the data content to update, for example, the AR database.

The obvious advantage of this technique is that you put in contact two applications without heavy modifications to either of them, which saves development costs. And with proprietary messaging systems from IBM and Microsoft, you can select the Java Message Service, a recent addition that you can theoretically deploy on every Java-compliant platform.

Sometimes communicating by e-mail is not fast enough, and a phone call works better. The technology for use in cases such as this is Corba, a standard created by the Object Management Group to define applications interoperability. Using various Corba protocols, you can create a tighter link between applications than you can with MOM.

You can use Corba-compliant techniques on just about any platform, but for Microsoft OSes you have the additional choice of the proprietary COM (Component Object Model) or, if you have deployed Windows 2000, the extended COM+ architecture that offers both message-based and tighter applications integration.

As you probably expected, reconciling different data structures will be one of your struggles. Furthermore, you may need to extract and consolidate data from different sources to acquire a comprehensive view of a business problem. For example, knowing your selling capacity for the near future involves analysing quantity on order and stock on hand from your own databases and the expected delivery schedule from your suppliers.

The next vital aspect is to ensure that your integrated enterprise applications have the capability of creating and enforcing business rules. This cement will glue together the various pieces of your integration project.

A common quandary is deciding whether to build your application-integration framework in-house or to choose one of the many solutions available. Our warm recommendation is to concentrate your in-house resources on the business aspects and to select an EAI package from the many on the market.

There is a very rich market for EAI solutions, and you can select the offer that best fits the technical and business requirements for your company. Due to the variety of solutions available, you will have to spend some time choosing a suitable EAI product; however, you will save a significant part of your development cost.

Integrating applications across enterprises is the new challenge that companies face in the Internet era.

Although the difficulties may seem daunting at first, creating the appropriate level of integration with business partners can give your company's business a big boost.

Not pursuing integration could restrict the business vision of your company to what happens within the corporate domain.

And that's an advantage you don't want to grant to yourcompetitors.

* You can reach senior analyst Mario Apicella at mario_apicella@info-world.comThe bottom line . . .

Enterprise application integration Business case: creating an integrated application environment can make your company more competitive and can expand its business perspective, allowing your company to embrace real-time information from suppliers and business partners, thus making the decision process more effective and business-aware. The significant cost of implementing integrated business solutions can be sensibly reduced by choosing commercial solutions designed for your specific company requirements and adopting adequate workflow and control rules.

Technology case: many assessed and emerging technologies, such as Corba, COM, MOM, and XML, help in smoothing technical differences among applications and data structures. But the number and variety of integration cases creates a complexity that can be challenging for most IT departments.


+ Improves company efficiency

+ Expands business vision to include outside partners+ Offers higher-level management of business rulesCons:

- Expensive to implement

- Difficult to find people with expertise- Rapidly evolving market* See Buyers Guide for EAI vendors

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