EAI: Economic Necessity Or Crucial Business Requirement?

The Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) business is one of the fastest growing markets today, with industry experts quoting a market growth toward $7 billion over the next few years. This has fueled the development of a new breed of technologies and integration solutions.

Based on ever-changing business demands, many companies have grown and changed over the decades into the complex organizations we see today. This is also true of their IT environments, which have evolved proportionately into complex systems, coupled with larger and larger recurring expenses. Over the years, organizations have discussed working smarter by streamlining practices. Unfortunately, IT integration practices have not kept pace until recently. Users no longer need to develop hard-coded, complex point-to-point interfaces or worry about the corresponding unique skills required to maintain such integration. It is now possible to place a special integration layer between enterprise applications that allows for the easy management of data connections and formats along with the asso-ciated business rules for all of the diverse applications.

There are many benefits that are possible with this new enabling technology. Among them:

Discover options for improving the performance of legacy data warehouses. Data warehousing sometimes causes one to envision huge stores of data that is updated periodically — perhaps once a day or once a week — and then quickly becomes out of date. In today's business climate, it is more and more important that data be delivered quickly and accurately in order to stay competitive. Technologies now exist that support real-time data warehousing and reduce IT requirements. Consider being able to apply business rules to select information, enabling action to be taken automatically based on the criticality of the data without having to modify existing applications. This is now a part of the value derived from new integration technology solutions that support flexible interfaces across an entire enterprise or between enterprises.

Maximize the value of combined systems after an acquisition. Today, EAI products allow for easier integration with little or no impact on current applications. For example, you could use an EAI product like MQSeries Integrator to interface between current and acquired systems, extract data from the old system, and then use powerful rules and transformation technology to safely migrate the data into the appropriate format and location within the existing systems/applications. Once you have extracted the data you need from the acquired system(s), the technology then allows you the flexibility to safely phase out whichever system(s) you don't want to keep, or to continue using diverse systems to exchange common data in a central and controlled fashion.

It is not uncommon for an organization, such as a bank, to find itself with several redundant applications due to various acquisitions. Companies often can't afford to put in one standard system due to increased cost, time and the risk of lost data. Many times, firms are forced to live with several variations of the same applications, which leads to higher routine maintenance costs. As new business demands increase in the form of e-trading, e-banking and so on, it becomes even more difficult to maintain this cycle. With today's integration technology, however, merging newly acquired systems into the fold is much easier, less risky and therefore less costly.

Improve the availability of your company's Web site. One of the problems with many first-generation Web sites is that they tend to "run out of gas." The original design supporting many of these Web sites does not have the technical infrastructure to scale up to large volumes of transactions, particularly those that require data from back-end systems. For example, many early Web sites had interfaces hard-coded directly into back-end or legacy systems, or even worse, relied on duplicate data entry. The main design emphasis was on the presentation or look of the Web site, while the back-end systems were designed to handle the internal transaction volumes from the legacy customer service functions.

The floodgates now break loose in the form of Internet traffic, and begin to overload the Web front end, the legacy back end or both. Planning for increased volume with scalable solutions is therefore critical to success. Current technology offers many choices in the form of Web application servers that manage the underpinnings of incoming Internet traffic and provide various forms of integration to legacy data sources, without all of the tedious hard-coded integration.

Reduce fixed costs and increase variability for legacy application maintenance work. The difficult part, and the most costly portion of maintenance, is the time and effort spent maintaining point-to-point or hard-coded interfaces. GartnerGroup, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, estimates that as much as 30% of the costs associated with implementing a major packaged application will be consumed by the development of point-to-point interfaces, with an even higher percentage being spent on ongoing maintenance of these interfaces. With current middleware integration solutions, interfaces can be built in a central (hub-and-spoke) fashion using meta data tools to tie disparate data sources together, all without modifying the current application code. The central area (hub) also provides a standard documentation point for critical interfaces. It is kind of like a data dictionary.

In some cases, like with Neon's tools, this central area carries rules and transformation logic, allowing you to modify either one independent of the applications. This approach actually saves more money the longer you use it by reducing ongoing maintenance costs. Savings can now be realized in a few short months as opposed to years. In addition, consider an organizational change, a new business line (such as with e-business) or other factors that force modifications in the information you need. Consider the complex IT effort normally needed to support these changes across separate applications. Now consider an environment in which all applications provide data to a standardized central point or clearinghouse that maintains both business and formatting rules. Imagine the savings in effort if changes can be achieved in this clearinghouse without modifying or interfering with the existing applications.

Connect a business-critical le-gacy application to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. Today's integration products have adapters or connectors that are "ERP-compliant." In other words, they are designed to work with or "talk the talk" of the most popular ERP packages, such as Baan, SAP, J.D. Edwards and so on. This is another money-saving opportunity because it allows users to phase in the implementation of a heavy-duty ERP package. We have all heard the horror stories associated with large ERP implementations. Even the best and smoothest implementations discover that key factors within the legacy systems are still needed. No problem. Integration technology can help tie ERP to legacy, and ERP to ERP. Remember, many firms have more than one ERP system; now disparate ERP packages can share data. The benefit of using these new products is that the integration vendors work with the ERP vendors to keep their products certified and up-to-date with vendor enhancements. This saves you more money by allowing integration vendors to do the maintenance.

Know that the business will continue as usual if a technology failure occurs. Many older integration methods use point-to-point or hard-coded methods to interface applications together. This can result in extra dependencies, and can cause select systems to fail unnecessarily. For example, order entry may be directly tied to a fulfillment system through a hard-coded interface. If fulfillment has a technical problem, and order entry's application code can't communicate with it anymore, it may shut down both the fulfillment and order-entry systems even though the actual problem is with fulfillment.

One of the benefits of EAI products is that the integration is done in a fashion that allows systems to keep running even if another system crashes. It's part of publish-and-subscribe and persistence rules, where messages can be placed on the central queue and be picked up by other apps when needed. If the system goes down, some products will keep trying until the message is delivered. This is an advantage even when all of the systems are running properly.

With today's global organizations scattered throughout varied time zones, many applications need to share data. EAI products can now provide an integration layer between enterprise apps that allows users to maintain legacy data sources without having to hard-code the integration. Such flexibility provides not only improved performance, but also a greater return on investment.

About the Authors

Ralph Billington is director of eServices at Data Dimensions Inc., Bellevue, Wash.

John Allen is director of strategic alliances at Data Dimensions Inc.