Divide and Conquer: Segmenting the E-business Integration Market

Do the number and variety of technology choices for implementing e-business solutions confuse you? Join the crowd. A recent visitor to the Web site posted the following question: "What sets application servers apart from other EAI technologies? And where (how and why) would you draw the line between business-to-business integration vendors (such as webMethods) and e-commerce vendors (such as Ariba)?"

I empathize with this reader's confusion. For companies looking to implement e-business solutions, the marketing information on many vendors' Web sites makes it sound as if they all do the same thing. And to the extent that they all enable e-business solutions, that is true. But it is not very helpful when you're looking for technology solutions for your business problem.

To help you understand the differences in the product offerings, ebizQ has created an e-Business Integration Market Segmentation. It explains the types of technologies that make up e-business infrastructures and solutions, and segments vendor offerings by market. This market segmentation is intended to help managers and IT professionals who are responsible for implementing e-business solutions understand the technology available to help them get their jobs done.

The ebizQ e-Business Integration Market Segmentation distinguishes the following market segments: Application Communication, Application Servers, Enterprise Application Integration (EAI), Process Management and Workflow, e-Business Integration and e-Business Services.

An e-business solution often requires technologies from more than one market segment. Some vendors offer solutions in specific segments, while others offer solutions in multiple or all segments.

Application Communication—Application communication comprises the technologies that enable communication between disparate applications developed in different languages and platforms. These technologies include messaging systems, as well as Java Messaging Service (JMS), message queuing for reliable delivery and recoverability, publish-and-subscribe technologies for one-to-many broadcast messaging, and object request brokers (ORBs). Every integration solution is based on some type of application communication technology.

Most EAI solutions are based on asynchronous messaging. More recently, synchronous communication solutions have been proposed for real-time performance requirements. Vendors may offer their own communication method, run on top of another messaging solution (such as IBM's MQSeries, which has the lion's share of the market), or they may do both.

While it is not uncommon for companies to have more than one messaging technology, it is imperative that they limit the proliferation of different infrastructure technologies as the permutations and combinations will quickly become unmanageable. Companies should choose a primary messaging technology and then deviate only for specific requirements, such as high performance or high security. Limiting the number of accepted technologies reduces the system's complexity and maintenance, as well as operating costs.

Application Servers—Application servers offer runtime services for component-based applications. These services include transaction management, object management, connection pooling, session management, event management, a Java Virtual Machine, load balancing and failover.

Application servers are becoming more important in the enterprise integration infrastructure for a number of reasons. First, e-business applications often require functionality that does not yet reside in existing systems. The e-business solution therefore requires new code to be integrated with the existing systems. The application server is most often the platform for writing the new code.

Second, application servers often provide Web connectivity for extending existing solutions to e-business solutions.

Application servers also provide a robust platform that includes load balancing, failover and transaction management for EAI technologies such as translation, transformation and intelligent routing. For this reason, BEA Systems and IBM are repositioning their integration middleware under their respective application server brands.

In addition, application servers enable component integration. This means components written in different tools by different developers or vendors can communicate if they all have the same standard interface such as COM, EJB or CORBA. Some organizations are taking a long-term approach to legacy integration by representing legacy processes as components that can be accessed by other components.

Finally, application server vendors are now offering integration capabilities, including application adapters for integrating with packaged applications, data synchronization across multiple data sources and distributed transaction management. Many app servers support the eXtensible Markup Language (XML).

Enterprise Application Integration (EAI)—EAI technologies include data translation and transformation, rule- and content-based routing, and application connectors or adapters to packaged applications such as SAP, PeopleSoft and other enterprise resource planning and e-business applications. An EAI solution offers a platform for integrating many different applications through a common API, and it abstracts the complexity of creating, managing and changing the integration solution. An EAI solution is, therefore, generally faster to implement and change than a point-to-point integration solution.

Legacy integration often requires custom programming and is responsible for most of the implementation costs. EAI vendors are extending their solutions for legacy integration through acquisitions, partnerships and new technology development. Numerous types of legacy integration technologies exist. Companies should evaluate their performance and adaptability requirements before choos-ing a legacy integration solution. While screen scraping may be a quick fix, it will not provide the flexibility required for fast-changing businesses; neither will it provide scalability for high message volumes.

Many EAI vendors are extending their solutions to include support for process management and B2B integration. The ultimate goal is to provide an end-to-end integration infrastructure. But while many EAI vendors claim to have end-to-end solutions, it all depends on how they define the ends. Some vendors define end-to-end as managing messaging at a routing level, from one application to the next. An enterprise integration infrastructure that can take a transaction from the Web, pass it to multiple internal systems, notify partners and suppliers, and automatically do procurement based on business rules will require multiple technologies, often from multiple vendors.

When building e-business infrastructures, organizations should implement tactically, but architect strategically. Translation, transformation, and routing meta data and application adapters are highly reusable for future e-business solutions. Companies that build leverage-able infrastructures will reap the rewards in subsequent implementations.

Process Management and Work-flow—When overall responsibility for the end-to-end business process is not contained in a single application, and control of the flow of information across application and business boundaries sits outside all the applications, process management and workflow solutions provide the overall management. Process automation focuses on integrating apps at a business-process level, rather than a message or event level. Process automation, offered by a number of EAI vendors, enables a company to design and integrate its business processes at a business level.

Some business processes require human interaction and processing. Workflow solutions include notification and task boxes with people-oriented interfaces. Because of customer demand, process automation vendors are now adding workflow capabilities. Some EAI vendors are partnering with workflow vendors, with varying degrees of integration between the technologies. Before EAI, workflow solutions generally performed integration through a low-level API that required extensive coding and custom integration services. Retrofitting established workflow solutions for enterprise integration is, in some cases, more difficult than adding workflow functionality to a process automation solution. Companies should evaluate the manageability and performance of process automation and workflow solutions.

When used in conjunction with an EAI and messaging infrastructure, process management can optimize business processes, thereby reducing business-cycle times and creating business advantage. However, few organizations have clearly defined business processes. Organizations that invested heavily in BPR, but had difficulty implementing it or never achieved a return on investment, should evaluate the emerging solutions for their ability to implement BPR solutions with minimal disruption to existing systems.

e-Business Integration—e-Business integration refers to the technologies that enable integration of data and transactions across organizational boundaries. This includes B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) solutions. The technologies enabling e-business integration include security, partner management, XML, process management and electronic data interchange (EDI). Some e-business integration solutions include EAI technology for integration with the back end; others offer only B2B integration.

While process management and automation may provide a competitive advantage within an organization, it is an absolute requirement for B2B. The interaction process, including acknowledging receipt of messages and transactions, and managing multiple security levels, messaging formats and so on between all the independent business entities must be clearly defined. RosettaNet is one example of a standards approach for defining business processes. However, RosettaNet has only been defined for the high-tech and semiconductor industries. Process automation and management technology enables companies to graphically define business processes and rules, and enables rapid implementation for new business partners.

As with application integration, companies should architect globally and implement tactically when implementing e-business solutions. While point-to-point solutions might be faster to implement for the first application, each subsequent e-business implementation would require a substantial infrastructure. Investing in an e-business integration architecture that lays a foundation for future implementations may cost more for the first implementation, but will save time and money on subsequent implementations. Companies should evaluate their expected rate of change and determine whether flexibility and adaptability are important business requirements. If they are, the probability is high that the initial investment in an e-business integration architecture will pay off.

e-Business Services—e-Business services provide the business functionality to utilize the services of the e-business infrastructure. e-Business services are defined by the type of e-business solutions they enable: e-commerce, exchanges, e-CRM, supply chain, portals and distributed e-services, for example.

E-commerce includes both B2C and B2B commerce. Exchanges involve services such as auctions, reverse auctions, partner management, logistics tracking and credit checks. e-CRM extends customer systems into the customer's hands to support higher levels of customer satisfaction. Supply-chain integration solutions include partner management, catalog management, service-level definition, monitoring and management, and distributed process monitoring and management. The term "portal" can be confusing because many types of portals exist, such as employee information portals, Web portals (such as Yahoo!), B2B portals that give businesses visibility into their partner and customer information systems, and enterprise portals that provide a single interface for multiple business solutions. Distributed e-services are discrete business services—such as credit clearance, credit-card authorization or logistics tracking—that can be dynamically accessed over the Web. A few distributed e-services currently exist, and their number and variety are sure to grow.

Companies have three options for implementing e-business services: buy, build or outsource.

The buy option is offered by vendors such as Ariba and CommerceOne. While these solutions provide business functionality such as auctions, reverse auctions and market baskets, the solution often must integrate with an organization's packaged, custom and legacy applications. Thus, integration technology vendors provide adapters to these e-business solutions. The buy decision is attractive to companies looking for ready solutions. However, companies can only expect to buy competitive parity because their competitors can buy the same thing. Therefore, firms should buy only basic, generic functionality that is not critical to their competitive advantage. Companies will always have to build for competitive advantage.

The build option can actually be a combination of buy and build. Many application server vendors offer e-business solutions, such as e-commerce frameworks, that include shopping carts, credit-card processing, customer management, catalog management and other functionality. The solutions are implemented as component-based business services, which makes them easy to extend and customize. Firms that have extensive customization requirements and need to build for competitive advantage should consider the buy/build approach offered by app servers.

The outsource option is offered by application service providers (ASPs). The number and type of ASPs is growing in leaps and bounds, in every business segment, offering almost every type of application hosting. The ASP option will be attractive to companies with limited implementation and management resources.

Think competitive advantage
The ebizQ reader's question mentioned at the beginning of this article reminds me of the widespread confusion over middleware that was prevalent in the early '90s.

I remember being asked by a conference attendee whether his company needed TCP/IP or ODBC for its client/server application. My answer was "yes to both." The middleware technologies were at different layers of the stack—they performed different functions.

Business managers interested solely in an e-business solution may fail to recognize the requirement for building a robust infrastructure to enable business growth and change. While a point-to-point integration of a purchased solution may solve the immediate business requirement, investment in the implementation does not carry over to the next solution—it is not reusable. Changes to the business process or requirements could require extensive rewiring, thereby inhibiting the ability to move quickly for competitive advantage.

While the buy option will continue to be popular among companies feeling the urgency for an e-business solution, they will always need to customize to provide competitive advantage. It is therefore essential that companies standardize on infrastructure technologies to enable more rapid integration of new business functions. When considering ASP solutions, companies should consider the level of customization that the ASP will support, as well as integration with existing solutions.

Despite the marketing hype, e-business integration is still a complex task, and there are no silver bullets. However, emerging technologies are making this easier to accomplish by ordinary mortals... in Web time.