Making the packages play together
- By Colleen Frye
Memo to I/S:Extend the enterprise. After you're done connecting the front
and back office systems, we want you to connect employees, suppliers and customers. Oh and by the way, we mean
a realtime, event-driven enterprise, of course.
That is a tall order for I/S, but one that is increasingly being issued
from executive offices. While many I/S shops have recently implemented or are implementing new enterprise resource
planning (ERP) systems to run their core business -- no small feat in itself -- many corporate development managers
are now being asked to bolt on customer service and support, sales automation and supply-chain systems. The goal,
driven in part by the corporate world's widespread adoption of the Internet and electronic commerce, is to streamline
both the supply chain and associated business processes. By reengineering business processes to be both cross-application
and cross-enterprise, firms will be better able to respond to customers and suppliers, as well as to changes in
The key to extending the enterprise, and the reason it
is such a tall order, is integration. I/S must not only tie together disparate applications within the organization
-- both packaged and customized -- it must also figure out a way to integrate external systems. This process can
require the development of potentially hundreds of thousands of integration points. On top of that, issues of maintenance
and scalability make this task not only insurmountable, but impractical.
"It's a big problem," said Ed Black, vice president, Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based consulting firm.
So big, in fact, that a new market segment has emerged over the last six to nine months to address the need. Aberdeen
and other consulting firms have dubbed the market "enterprise application integration" or EAI.
Enterprise application integration solutions move beyond middleware messaging systems to address integration at
a higher level -- the business-process level. In addition, vendors providing these new solutions are, in effect,
acting as the "middleman" between disparate packaged applications. The solutions also take responsibility
for maintenance and upgrades. By offering pre-built points of integration, and pledging to keep up with the upgrades
of packaged applications, these up-start vendors offer a value proposition that can significantly reduce the amount
of custom-developed points of integration required in today's enterprise.
"The idea of a third party being responsible for the maintenance of the point of integration; that's unique,"
said Black. "What makes them different [from middleware] is they're trying to approach the problem from the
sense of the business processes, not just low-level API integration and data transformation. It's really operating
at a higher semantic level between applications."
The Aberdeen Group expects the application integration solution market to "get lucrative quickly," said
Black, reaching a billion dollars in just a few years.
Several software suppliers -- about half of them start-ups -- are contending for position in this new market. The
list includes: Active Software Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.; Oberon Software Inc., Cambridge, Mass.; CrossWorlds Software
Inc., Burlingame, Calif.; CrossRoute Software, Redwood Shores, Calif.; New Era of Networks (Neon), Englewood, Colo.;
Tibco Software Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.; TSI International Software, Wilton, Conn.; and Vitria Technology Inc.,
Mountain View, Calif. The common business model is one of partnering, initially with application vendors in the
ERP space and the customer interaction system (CIS) markets. Most of them have or are expecting to have partnership
agreements with major ERP suppliers such as SAP America Inc., Wayne, Pa., PeopleSoft Inc., Pleasanton, Calif.,
Baan Co., Menlo Park, Calif., and J.D. Edwards World Solutions Co., Denver, as well as with CIS vendors such as
The Vantive Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., Scopus Technology Inc., Emeryville, Calif., and Aurum Software, Santa Clara,
Calif. The next wave of integration, and partnering, is expected to occur among packaged supply-chain applications.
In terms of addressing high-level business process integration, "Oberon and CrossWorlds are the primary players,"
said Steve Bonadio, analyst, the Hurwitz Group, Framingham, Mass. He gives Oberon and CrossWorlds high scores for
ease of use and business process integration between the major business applications. The other players are all
moving in the same direction, he said, beyond simple messaging middleware. "It's only a matter of time."
In addition to pre-built integrations or connectors, these solutions typically include at least some of the following
components: a messaging middleware subsystem; connections to a third-party middleware system; a publish/ subscribe
model; object orientation and Common Object Request Broker Architecture (Corba) compliancy; a visual integration
facility; and a software developers kit for building customized interfaces to legacy or custom-built applications.
Saving time and money
The move toward a "packaged" integration solution follows on the heels of the corporate I/S trend
of buying packaged applications whenever possible, rather than writing custom systems. "Typically, when you're
writing an interface program you read the file from one vendor, do modifications, then write out the file in the
other vendor's file format," said Tom Diersch, MIS manager at Seaspan International, a marine transport company
in Vancouver, British Columbia. "All this activity is usually quite time-consuming, especially writing the
detailed lines of code." Keeping the interfaces current as the business or packaged software changes is also
challenging, Diersch said.
Diersch recently ran into a problem typical in today's relentless merger and acquisition environment. Just as Seaspan
began moving from a legacy mainframe environment to Oracle Financial applications from Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores,
Calif., the company was purchased by Washington Corp., Missoula, Mont., which had already standardized on the J.D.
In the short term, Seaspan programmers had to build interfaces between the Oracle Financials running on an OpenVMS-based
Alpha box from Digital Equipment Corp. and the J.D. Edwards system running on an IBM AS/400. Over time, the Seaspan
plan is to convert subsidiaries to J.D. Edwards, and later the corporate financials, said Diersch.
Prior to the acquisition, Seaspan wrote custom interfaces when needed. However, now "we're moving away from
an environment that's mostly custom built to one with more packaged solutions," Diersch said. The Prospero
integration solution from Oberon Software, which Diersch discovered at a J.D. Edwards (JDE) conference, seemed
to fit the bill for his immediate needs and would support the planned move away from custom solutions.
"Two things struck me," he said. "First, there is considerable work in building modules that interfaced
with JDE software, and Oberon had already done this legwork. Second, they had a visual programming interface where
you created interfaces between data files by dragging and dropping blocks, and connecting data files."
The first completed integration project is a time-card entry system that feeds Seaspan's mainframe payroll system.
interfaced the time-card system with the JDE payroll system. We spent two days doing drag and drop, then another
day modifying it," Diersch said. "We had to make changes so it converted properly. But basically, there
was no coding [needed] to write this interface."
Diersch said the time-card integration is a batch interface, as a realtime interface is not necessary. "Prospero
is really a batch system, not a realtime one. But I don't think I'm stressing the system very much. If I were trying
to do a realtime interface, you might have a problem. On the other hand, based on the [Prospero] model and the
way it works, there are some opportunities for Oberon to expand this model. It would be the perfect place to establish
a groupware application," he said.
Plaut Consulting Inc., Waltham, Mass., is an SAP implementer that recently began working with Prospero. Integration
products like Prospero promise "significant time savings in development," said Andreas Zimmer, director
of IT services at Plaut. "The way Prospero works, you have one development environment for two platforms,
say interfacing J.D. Edwards and SAP. You have building blocks at the application level so you don't have to know
two programming languages. It also reduces interface maintenance. The underlying technology may change, but the
business object and the way it's represented stay the same."
Saving coding and maintenance time becomes especially critical when extending a system beyond the enterprise. Justin
Gamache, manager of Internet technology and application development for extranets at Autodesk Inc., San Rafael,
Calif., needed a solution that would allow Autodesk's dealer channel to do business with the company in a more
timely and efficient manner. Thus, Autodesk had to find a way to allow dealers to do tasks such as ordering, registering
and viewing invoices online by using a universal browser interface that talked to Autodesk's SAP, Scopus and Informix
"Suddenly, you have disparate systems everywhere," said Gamache, who added that any solution could not
include the internal writing of custom interfaces. "It was not our business," he emphasized. "We
saw how many bad solutions there were out there. In some regard, everybody does integration in the background doing
a batch upload. But that's not resource planning. With an extranet application, integration needs to be more sophisticated.
We looked at a lot of vaporware and promises."
Among other potential solutions, Autodesk looked at the ActiveWeb Integration System from Active Software, and
was sold on its publish and subscribe paradigm, which Gamache described as "very flexible." Active's
event management structure was also "extremely slick. One big problem [with integration] is translating data.
You have completely different database schemas from system to system."
In addition, Gamache said Active provides a "solid, high-level API. It's not like getting Corba where you
have to write every detail. With Active, you just extend to meet the business needs. They handle all the communications.
You just have to focus on doing business, not writing the socket connections and the lower-level language stuff
that can throw you some hiccups."
Gamache likes the fact that while ActiveWeb provides a "black box" drag-and-drop integration solution,
like its competitors, it also allows developers to go deeper. "As an application development manager, I want
total control over what we do and how we do it. In situations where I need to get into the inner workings [of ActiveWeb],
Active gives me a variety of languages to do it in, like C, Java and C++. That's empowering," he said.
Gamache contends that everyone's goal of making integration less programming-intensive is not yet fulfilled. Although
integration solutions like Active and others bill themselves as plug and play between packaged applications, the
promise cannot be extended to any customized solutions. Gamache said his environment, in which 40% of the SAP system
has been customized and 70% of the Scopus system is customized, is likely typical of most large organizations.
"Everybody says they've got plug and play," Gamache said. However, he noted, "When they see our
environment they say, 'You've got to code.'"
Still, ActiveWeb does provide significant time and skill savings, he said. "When you're an integrator of all
disparate systems, you have to have expertise in all of those systems. Now we don't have to have that expertise
in-house because Active provides it. We can talk to somebody fluent in every environment," he noted.
Facing the skeptics
Dick Weaver, business area manager for Farmland Industries Inc., Kansas City, Mo., an agricultural cooperative,
was also charged with extending his firm's enterprise. Farmland wanted to integrate and optimize its supply chain
in order to maximize margins for itself, as well as for the 1,400 local cooperatives throughout the U.S., Canada
and Mexico that own Farmland. "It doesn't make sense for us to operate independently," said Weaver. "There
are a great deal of built-in inefficiencies."
Farmland, in a joint venture with Ernst & Young, started an initiative called FarmLink to electronically link
local cooperatives and producers. After nixing an original strategy of extending Farmland's SAP system to the local
cooperatives because of cost and the complexity of the business process reengineering and support
required, Farmland considered middleware. "We looked at developing our own middleware or buying some and enhancing
it," said Weaver. "But as we studied it, we realized we didn't need to be in the business of supplying
technology to local cooperatives."
Farmland turned to another partnering agreement in which Agris Corp., based in Atlanta, would supply the core business
system to the local cooperatives. To link the Agris systems with Farmland's SAP system, Farmland turned to CrossWorlds
Software. "We knew we needed more than an EDI solution. We liked the Corba compliancy [of CrossWorlds],"
The CrossWorlds Customer Interaction suite integrates applications from Aurum, Clarify Inc., San Jose, Calif.,
Scopus, Trilogy Software, Austin, Texas, and Vantive with Baan, PeopleSoft and SAP applications. The product consists
of a series of collaborations, which contain cross-application business logic, and connectors that interface with
an ERP application's APIs and act as agents for the collaborations.
"The concept of buying connectivity and having [CrossWorlds] maintain it seemed to be an economically attractive
proposition versus doing it ourselves. We did a classic make versus buy analysis," said Weaver.
Since CrossWorld's "out of the box" integration did not include the Agris product, Farmland contracted
with CrossWorlds to develop and maintain the connectors. Through knowledge transfer, Weaver expects to develop
the competency to build more connectors themselves, as needed, using the CrossWorlds toolkit. However, he added,
"our intention is not to do any of the work on the SAP side." By CrossWorlds taking on that responsibility,
"it gets us out of a major piece of work."
Weaver said the firm's extended enterprise is a strategic initiative, so there is no pressure to make the technology
work overnight. He also said that the organization hopes to launch its first business collaborations, administered
using CrossWorlds technology, by 1999. Today, Farmland is currently getting its hands around the technology and
determining the business processes that have to change. In addition, Farmland has some evangelizing to do: It must
sell the local cooperatives on the idea of a collaborative relationship.
Weaver said some evangelizing was required in-house, too. "Our technical teams were skeptical of the CrossWorlds
concept. We had a culture of building everything ourselves. But after looking at [CrossWorlds'] architecture and
the way they were approaching the problem, they saw it had technical appeal."
Carlos Recalde, director of architecture and integration at KPMG Peat Marwick's national support center, Montvale,
N.J., also faced skeptics when his group evaluated an integration solution from Vitria. The organization was in
the process of replacing its legacy core business application for year 2000 compliancy. They chose Oracle Financials
and project management, and PeopleSoft HR to replace Cobol systems. Their dilemma was interfacing those three new
systems, as well as other applications that relied on that same information, such as sales and marketing, and contact
"The early approaches by separate development teams were to build custom interfaces to legacy applications
for transition purposes, then build custom interfaces between the newer applications," said Recalde. "When
I looked at it, it was a maze of custom interfaces. From a supportability perspective, and the ability to live
with it over time, it was totally unmanageable. We wanted something separate from the fact that Oracle will have
new releases, and that we'll change and add applications."
KPMG Peat Marwick came up with a concept that Recalde calls a "data bus." In theory, the data bus would
be built in four stages. First, the engineers would build a message queuing system for interconnecting the applications;
then business logic would be added on top of the messaging system, perhaps hard coded. Next object-oriented technology
would be added to the business layer. Finally, intelligence for diagnosis and analysis of the information would
The plan sounded great in theory, but it did not exist in the marketplace. KPMG Peat Marwick decided to bring in
IBM's MQSeries middleware for phase one. Meanwhile, in-house developers, convinced of the need to custom build
the integrations, were moving quickly toward their internal deadline for a demonstration.
Then Recalde called Vitria, which stepped up its ongoing development for PeopleSoft and Oracle connectors. During
the first demonstration of the Vitria-enabled data bus to the wary developers, "we were showing them they
could write business applications for us in their native languages, like Oracle or PeopleTools. This had the effect
we wanted. They wanted to look under the cover. By Vitria's second presentation, they had a million questions,
like 'How is it going to scale?'"
KPMG Peat Marwick pulled the plug on its plans for MQ, and decided to take a calculated risk on Vitria. "We're
in scalability and performance testing now, and we're going through in-house training for using this publish/subscribe
object-oriented approach," said Recalde.
Recalde said it would be difficult to take the product away from the developers now. In fact, as developers and
business analysts get acquainted with this new breed of integration solution, they can envision more uses for it.
"With this technology, the more time you spend with it, the more things you find to do with it," said
Richard Buss, vice president of technology at Disclosure Inc., Bethesda, Md., who is using the NeoNet integration
solution from New Era of Networks. "The ideas for using these engines have outpaced our resources."
Neon and NetDynamics Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., recently agreed to integrate the NetDynamics 4.0 application server
with the NeoNet Rules Engine, which separates business rules from applications. In another partnering agreement,
Neon will be bundling IBM's MQSeries as NeoNet's core messaging system. While NeoNet had an internally developed
messaging system, Robert Theis, senior vice president, chief marketing officer at Neon, said MQSeries is the de
facto standard for messaging. "Current customers can continue to use the other version or upgrade, which will
be seamless," he said.
Still, the technology segment has some maturing to do. Early users interviewed for this article say the toolkits
need to become more robust, and the jury is still out on the technology's scalability, although everyone says it
is promising. The success of the individual solutions will also depend in large part on how successful the vendors
are in locking up partnerships with the leading application vendors and in gathering third-party support. As far
as an integration
solution for custom applications, "that is still an untested part of the value proposition," said Aberdeen
In addition, many of the integration solution vendors are young and immature, so Black said a conscientious buyer
must weigh value versus risk.
While putting the new technology through its paces during scalability and performance testing, KPMG Peat Marwick's
Recalde offered this advice: Keep a proper sense of skepticism.