Making the packages play together

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 market.

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. Edwards applications.

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. "We
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 systems.

"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]," said Weaver.

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 management.

"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 be added.

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 Group's Black.

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.