The real-time enterprise

Much is made of middleware and application integration. In fact, the hyperbole is not unwarranted -- architects of corporate information are beginning to use these and other new technologies in truly new ways. The result may be an organization that is more highly automated and better able to respond to changes in the business environment.

The end of autonomous stovepipe applications, and the beginning of integrated applications, has been discussed for a number of years. However, a confluence of maturing technologies may make it a reality this time. Some people are even calling this new organization the real-time enterprise.

Of course, what is seen as real-time varies. If you push a button on an elevator and it lights up within a second, that is real-time response. If an Exocet missile is coming at your battle cruiser, only a millisecond response may qualify as real-time. Many organizations that have cut application response time from weeks to hours would call their results 'real-time.' But highly integrated and streamlined financial services, telecom and transportation app builders may have a truer claim on the real-time handle. Recent ADT user stories chronicle the move to real-time enterprise systems:

  • Investment banker D.E. Shaw & Co. used Talarian publish-and-subscribe middleware to provide a global backbone for statistical arbitrage systems that exploit slight price movements in capital markets.
  • U.K.-based National Power is now trading electricity on line. STC DataGate middleware is used to quickly reconcile 170 different message types.
  • Dow Jones Interactive is using the Cloudscape DB and an XML application server to integrate varied news feeds for deployment on corporate intranets.
  • A performance and operations management system for the Toronto Works and Emergency Services Dept. provides hourly data to shop floor crews, where monthly data had been provided before.
  • At Sigma Games Inc. in Las Vegas, slot machines are being linked to a Raima (now part of Centura) embedded database system that tracks activity, including the status of the machines' predefined payoff tables.

The list goes on. For example, what happened to all of the empty seats on 'red-eye' flights? Industry leaders like United Airlines have improved aircraft scheduling by deploying analysis software -- in United's case, from Broadbase Information Systems Inc. -- as part of new aircraft scheduling automation projects. Such mixing of operations systems with 'online' analytical systems may soon become the hallmark of many real-time enterprises.

Meanwhile, at United-competitor Delta Airlines, the IT force has employed the skills of New Hampshire consulting firm SCG Partners and used IBM MQSeries software to create a real-time information delivery system. As filtering is performed on a server, data is pushed to Delta workers
in multiple forms based on specific operational staff needs. See 'Message engine drives Delta data: A case study,' March 1999.

Surely, the technologies employed in real-time enterprise systems vary. The most fully featured of these systems would tend to use all or some of key middleware technologies, such as data transform software, message brokering, message queuing or publish-and-subscribe software. As stated, online analytical capabilities may be part of the parcel.

Thus, many in the Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) movement have a role in the new real-time enterprise. The response time involved is what makes it real-time. If one system event is programmed to automatically kick off other application events, we are at least nearing the realm of the real-time enterprise.

The main competitive benefits the information mix-master seeks in these exotic technology cocktails are fast reaction time to market forces and improved operations through leveraged information handling across groups.

As has been said, the movement has many names -- zero-latency enterprise, event-driven computing, just-in-time computing and straight-through processing are a few examples. Distributed object technology, business process reengineering, enterprise resource planning and
supply-chain management systems, to some extent or another, all share some lineage with the real-time enterprise.

It came from Wall Street

Trading has been a technology driver throughout history. Much of what we now call middleware began its life in Wall Street stock trading. Much as space and defense technology once came to be used in broader commercial apps, the technologies of Wall Street now provide the lead for others.

As Gartner Group analyst Ross Altman pointed out at the group's recent Symposium/ITexpo event in San Diego, key financial service applications such as foreign exchange, trading and back-office systems generate event notifications whenever they execute financial transactions that affect a bank's position. This has been going on for some time.

An area that has also been quick to adopt near-real-time methods has been the transportation business. While Altman rightly notes that the major air carriers have been heavily automated for 30 years, it is fair to say that the sector is expanding its use of event-driven architectures every day.

Among the host of Wall Street middleware specialists that hope to transfer real-time methods to wider markets, publish-and-subscribe giant Tibco Software is very prominent. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company -- known as Teknekron Software Systems before its 1994 purchase by Reuters Group PLC -- has recently spun itself into two businesses: one targeted at Wall Street, the other targeted at emerging commercial middleware markets.

Sub zero-latency

Gartner Group analyst Roy Schulte has been particularly vocal in promoting the idea of the real-time enterprise, for which he has coined the term 'zero-latency enterprise.'

'The zero-latency enterprise is one of the most important things that you'll be seeing over the next five to 10 years,' said Schulte. Last fall he went public with the concept. At the time, he said, he had detected an emerging pattern while looking at leading-edge enterprises that worked to tie packaged applications to home-brewed systems.

According to Schulte, there is a movement underway to integrate multiple processes, not just multiple systems and departments. 'It is integrating in real-time, [which means] sending individual transactions as they occur between cooperating application systems,' he noted.

He added: 'Zero-latency starts where traditional BPR leaves off. You are looking at accelerating the pace at which the entire business enterprise is running.' In Schulte's view of the new enterprise, push technology will come more widely into play.

Schulte said we have not been able to do this before for a number of reasons. Vast improvements in corporate networks and increased accessibility of the desktop PC are among the factors driving change. Just as important have been advances in middleware, particularly publish-and-subscribe and push messaging systems. One or more of the following services support the type of fast program-to-program communication Schulte envisions:

  • Transformation,
  • Message warehousing,
  • Flow control or work flow,
  • Message dictionary,
  • Administration and monitoring, and
  • Adaptors.

Schulte has numbered Tibco, Talarian, Datachannel, Vitria, Active Software, IBM and others among the players in this and related spaces.

While the term zero-latency has an engineering aura to it, it confronts real business issues. In fact, engineers probably
bridle at the term zero-latency. By definition, there must be some (no matter how small) time between distinct events. That is why some may choose the term 'real-time enterprise' to denote something similar to what Gartner's Schulte espouses.

RT sources

Thomas Laffey, co-founder and CTO at Talarian Corp., Los Altos, Calif., is also a champion of the zero-latency concept. 'At first we were about five years ahead of the market,' said Laffey. 'Now the whole world is coming over to real-time. It is very natural.'

Phil Hyatt, a systems engineer at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, has used Talarian's SmartSockets publish-and-subscribe software as part of his company's
in-flight tracking system. As in most airlines, varied data streams carry pertinent operations data that departments of dispatchers must be prepared to act on.

'We put Talarian in the middle in order to push out data to clients,' said Hyatt. Alerts on fuel needs, flight times and aircraft assignments are part of the mix. Another Southwest department is relying on database replication methods to support clients on the 'pull' side of the equation.

'I am amazed at the Talarian suite,' said Hyatt. 'Basically, we went with it because we saw the complexity involved in sending the information. In reality [prior to the use of Talarian], we were building the messaging system from scratch.'

'There were multiple paths we could take [to integration],' said James Wagner, another SmartSockets user. Wagner is a senior software designer at MCI Worldcom in Colorado Springs, Colo. The system he refers to is a fraud-detection system that processes tens of millions of events per
day. These paths include transfer through a database, transfer through CORBA or DCE, or transfer via a 4GL environment such as that from Forté Software. 'We chose the Talarian publish-and-subscribe offering because it was lightweight, fast and it offered an easy-to-understand abstraction [of the system],' said Wagner.

In May, Talarian enhanced its SmartSockets publish-and-subscribe middleware offering with a complementary message queuing product known as MQexpress. This seems to be a variation on a move made by IBM in January to add a publish-and-subscribe capability to a potent MQ-Series product line that already included MQIntegrator process management skills.

Another knowledgeable source on the real-time enterprise is JoMei Chang, former Tibco hand and now president and CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based Vitria Technology. In May, her company released Vitria BusinessWare 2.0, a product said to enable companies to integrate packaged, custom and legacy applications. 'Business value comes from integrating at the business level,' said Chang. 'This [new product] enables companies to automate and analyze their business processes across disparate applications.' Both Talarian's Laffey and Chang took part in a recent Application Development Trends 'virtual forum' on middleware. See 'A talk with the experts,' ADT, May 1999.

We spoke with Vitria software user Tim Hilgenberg, delivery group manager at Hewitt Associates, a Lincolnshire, Ill.-based provider of benefits outsourcing services. 'With Vitria's Automator tool we can automate business processes that bridge several systems,' he said.

'A lot of infrastructure [building] can be taken care of by these tools,' he suggested. Moreover, 'routing information around just isn't good enough.' Modern corporations need something intelligent that sits above it all, he added. Hilgenberg sees these capabilities in software such as Vitria's.

Driving latency out

The value of the emergent publish-and-subscribe middleware is that it works independently. 'You are not clogging things up,' remarks Ed Acly, analyst, International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Mass. 'Now you can take this stuff in between [layers] and teach it to do all kinds of things. There are all kinds of things you can do here -- all kinds of operations based on an event that you want to [associate with] follow-up processing,' said Acly.

Acly looks at the evolution of the so-called real-time enterprise as a threefold process. At the first level is the idea that EAI software can pass along business events. Then there is an event-driven level at which you are concerned not just with passing information but with optimizing in order to 'drive the latency out.' At the third level, is business process automation where, in effect, you are building business rules and policies in, he said.

Again, Acly states the that real-time is relative. 'It might take 10 to 15 seconds, that's a helluva lot better than something that once took overnight or a couple of days,' he said. Acly sees 'the database companies beginning to build some of these capabilities into their engines.'

In fact, hooking up the real-time enterprise with rules systems and company knowledge bases may be the next frontier in the real-time space. Some viewers indicate emerging companies like Broadbase Information Systems Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., WhiteLight Systems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., and Cohera Corp., Hayward, Calif., may be among those uniquely positioned here.

'It's up to the designer's imagination,' said Acly. 'We can now teach the computer system that when certain events happen, its job is to kick off subsequent events. It's this correlation of the places where things happen [Ed Note: In the middleware architect's parlance, the 'producers' or the 'publishers.'] and those who have to take the next step -- the subscribers -- when something happens.'

He added, 'You may have to communicate with a data warehouse, maybe a developer's screen or report, or even communicate with a person's pager or send message to a terminal. The idea is that you have this real-time feedback.'

Long ago, business processes of an organization began to resemble factory floors. Some people may be skeptical when they view what others say is 'really real-time.' It is not that much different than the accounts receivable system they wrote when Eisenhower was president, they may assert. That's okay, they are not all wrong. No one aspect of real-time enterprise technology is entirely new. But taken together, the effect is considerable. Big corporations, the ones that have the requisite money to devote to this big-ticket item, are betting on it big time. Those that stand on the sidelines are placed at some risk.