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2001: The year of the e-business platform

The Chinese symbolize individual years in terms of animals imbued with astrological significance; for example, 2001 is "the year of the snake." In IT, we use buzzwords to characterize our years. Remember "the year of client/server" or the multiple years that promised to be "the year of the network?" And 1999 was "the year of e-business" or "the year of the dot.com," depending on which side of the fence you were on. By the end of 2000, however, dot.coms had come and gone, and the year was better defined by the B2B buzzword. If vendor marketing can be a predictor in these matters, 2001 is shaping up to become "the year of the e-business platform."

As business managers scramble to catch up and keep up in the e-business race, they are deploying e-business solutions as fast as possible and using myriad technologies, vendors, platforms and service providers just to get to market. Once they implement an e-business solution, however, the inevitable occurs: It needs to be maintained; it needs to be changed; it needs to integrate additional data sources and functionality from other applications; and it needs to become the foundation for the next generation of e-business solutions.

The problem is, when time-to-market is the guiding criteria, planning for the future usually suffers. Companies that deploy multiple e-business solutions are left with a collection of different technologies and solutions, rather than an integrated platform. As organizations begin to understand that e-business is not merely an e-commerce solution but a way of life, they also start to realize that they must make plans to transition the company and all its systems for continued e-business growth. E-business has gone from being the buzzword of the year to a necessity for business success.

What is an e-business platform?
Vendors most often define an e-business platform according to the technologies they happen to offer. For example, an e-business platform can be defined as an integrated infrastructure that enables a wide variety of e-business solutions. Each type of e-business solution requires a different set of platform services (see "Technical requirements for e-business solutions,"). While a best-of-breed approach is attractive when considering a single application, it increases the complexity and cost of maintenance as the business changes.

An e-business platform enables multiple types of e-business solutions to be deployed using the same infrastructure. A complete e-business platform includes the following services:

  • Asynchronous and synchronous messaging;
  • Application servers to provide e-business application logic and functionality (including "wrappering" legacy functionality as components are accessed on the server);
  • Enterprise Application Integration for data access, data synchronization across applications and integration between applications across the enterprise, including packaged, legacy, Web and mobile applications;
  • Business Process Management (BPM) for long-running processes, both manual and automated, that cross organizational and application boundaries. The ability to define and monitor business analytics for optimizing e-business processes will be key for sustainable competitive advantage;
  • B2B integration, including enabling different connectivity options, B2B security, partner management, B2B process management and support for multiple types of B2B interactions;
  • Portals that enable browser-based access to data and functionality contained in disparate back-end solutions;
  • Mobile integration with different types of wireless devices (a 2001/2002 requirement);
  • Robust, integrated security across all platforms, including authentication and integrated access control, support for multiple firewall configurations, non-repudiation, encryption, and an easy and flexible way to set up security parameters for different business transactions;
  • Robust scalability and recoverability;
  • The ability to plug in new solutions;
  • Integrated meta data management, including the ability to automatically change and populate meta data definitions in proprietary message brokers for data translation and transformation;
  • Support for multiple standards, including different eXtensible Markup Language (XML) schema definitions;
  • Support for easy addition and extension of application functionality, including support for multiple component models (EJB and COM);
  • Integrated management across disparate platforms and applications; and
  • Integrated development.

The items in this list that will be most difficult to find in the marketplace today are integrated development tools that enable a single development environment for all e-business functionality—especially as many of the vendor solutions involve OEM and partner relationships. In the future, the ability to centrally manage meta data across multiple applications and integration technologies will be essential for long-term manageability and adaptability. Currently, no vendor offers open meta data management, although some standards bodies are working on it.

Business analytics will also be critical for sustainable competitive advantage. E-business success depends on reducing business cycle times and providing better customer service. This requires the ability to monitor, measure and manage business processes. Companies that focus on improving business processes have been shown to consistently outperform their competition.

Larger vendors, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, BEA, Oracle, Microsoft and Sun, are rushing to consolidate their e-business platforms through partners and OEMs for the technologies they lack, or just through marketing what they have as a complete platform. The integration vendors—such as Iona, Waltham, Mass.; New Era of Networks (Neon), Englewood, Colo.; SeeBeyond, Monrovia, Calif.; Tibco, Palo Alto, Calif.; Vitria, Sunnyvale, Calif.; and webMethods, Fairfax, Va., are also partnering and acquiring technology to broaden their offerings. And more integration solutions are coming to market all the time.

Many of the smaller vendors still offer best-of-breed solutions for certain functionality, such as legacy integration, BPM or workflow. Point solutions designed for particular verticals can offer faster time-to-market, as long as they don't create technology lock-in or infrastructure redundancy requiring substantial management or integration overhead. Vertical solutions or process templates can sometimes get you most of the way there and offer the advantage of being built on more open platforms.

While standards such as XML and Java are important, e-business standards are still evolving. Companies will most likely have to support multiple standards, as well as implement proprietary and point solutions to get the job done.

Companies that architect e-business platforms should adhere to the principle of planning strategically and implementing tactically. They should minimize the number of different technologies and skill sets required to implement and manage the e-business. Companies that adhere to the principles of a service-based, component-oriented architecture when building their e-business platforms will be well poised for whatever 2002 will bring.

Technical requirements for e-business solutions
Type of e-business solution Infrastructure requirements
E-commerce Integration technologies:
  • Web/application servers
  • enterprise integration
  • Business Process Management (BPM) (optional and optimal)
  • mobile integration
Other requirements:
  • market baskets
  • catalog management
  • catalog integration
  • search capabilities
E-CRM Integration technologies:
  • Web/application servers
  • enterprise integration
  • BPM (optional and optimal, may be part of the CRM application)
Other requirements:
  • CRM applications
Supply-chain integration Integration technologies:
  • B2B integration
  • BPM (especially distributed BPM)
  • enterprise integration (optional and optimal)
Other requirements:
  • supply-chain applications
  • industry-specific process templates
  • knowledge management/process analysis
  • business analytics
Exchanges/digital marketplaces Integration technologies:
  • B2B integration
  • BPM
  • enterprise integration (optional and optimal)
Other requirements:
  • Application functionality: auction, reverse-auction and credit approval
Portals Integration technologies:
  • Web/application servers
  • information aggregation
  • enterprise integration
  • mobile integration (optional/future)
Other requirements:
  • content management
  • personalization
  • advanced search functions
  • alerts

About the Author

Beth Gold-Bernstein is vice president of Strategic Products and Services at ebizQ.net, an e-business integration content portal in White Plains, N.Y. Contact her at bethgb@ebizQ.net.

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