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Web-to-Web integration revitalizes e-business

It would be a mistake to assume that the crash and burn of the dot.com craze signaled the death of e-business. While the current state of the economy has forced companies to take more measured approaches to e-business, the ability to do business over the Internet will soon be a matter of survival for most organizations. Successful companies will utilize the Internet to reduce business cycle times and provide better and faster service to customers. To increase business efficiency and effectiveness, companies must integrate, optimize and reuse.

New technologies are emerging to help companies implement better e-business solutions faster and cheaper. Sometimes, however, new technologies overlap others that have similar functionality but were developed for a slightly different purpose. Such is the current state of Web-to-Web, or W2W, integration technologies.

Integrate
E-business is not separate from a company's core business. Rather, e-business fundamentally changes the way the company does business. Success demands rapid response to competitive threats as well as emerging opportunities. The rapid implementation of e-business solutions requires integrated infrastructures that provide fast and easy access to corporate resources as well as to partners and suppliers. This means integration needs to be an infrastructure service available to all applications, whether they are packaged, Web, legacy, mobile, e-commerce or B2B. Many available solutions provide integration across most of these platforms, but W2W integration is not typically included in the major platforms.

The challenge of W2W integration is that often the developer's only access to a Web application is the HTML interface. This interface includes a substantial amount of information that controls the appearance of the page and has nothing to do with content or functionality. And, because the page's appearance can also change, any hand-coded solutions will not work for long.

W2W solutions typically provide technologies that parse the HTML, separate the content and functionality from the formatting instructions, and represent the Web components as callable functions or resources. These patent-pending technologies also provide the ability to recognize and adapt to changes in Web pages. The differences among the vendors' technologies are at times subtle and I'll leave it up to the Patent Office to sort them out. However, vendors are using the technology to solve slightly different business problems.

Optimize
E-business optimization comes about through the analysis and continuous improvement of business processes. This requires end-to-end monitoring and management of processes as they cross application and organizational boundaries. Business Process Integration (BPI) and business process management solutions support the design, automation, management and control of business processes. Some BPI solutions offer dashboards or cockpits that provide real-time visibility and management of business processes. This helps business managers make informed, timely decisions, providing the highest business value for integration.

All major integration vendors now include BPI, either through development, acquisition or licensing. This seems to be a growth sector in the integration market, as many new BPI solutions are coming to market through start-up companies. Most BPI solutions primarily support automated processes with limited manual intervention, such as approvals. However, full business optimization requires that manual processes also be monitored, managed and optimized. W2W integration supports the automation of many human interactions with multiple Web apps.

Manual Web site interaction can be both resource-intensive and error-prone. For example, an employee may need to manually log on to a Web site, enter identifying information to look up a credit rating, manually copy down the information provided, enter that information into another application, and then perform another lookup on another Web site and manually add that information into another application. Automating this interaction and the flow of information among applications can greatly reduce error rates. Early adapters of this technology are starting to report rapid ROI through error reduction alone.

Thus, W2W integration enables the optimization of business processes that are not currently supported by the leading integration platforms.

Reuse
During the past 20 years, the benefits of reuse have been frequently extolled and rarely realized. While object and component technologies enable reuse, they also require highly disciplined application design and engineering. Few companies have actually tracked and evaluated reuse. In contrast, application integration technology requires little or no design and programming discipline, and enables companies to reuse their existing and best-of-breed applications for new e-business solutions.

Web services are being touted as the programming paradigm of the Internet Age. They promise to dynamically discover and invoke application services that can be located anywhere on the Web, making the functionality available to your applications. It's the next step in component-based architectures and reuse. However, most of the discussion about Web services today focuses on the standards and protocols that will enable them, namely SOAP, UDDI, XML and ebXML. While these standards are the necessary foundation for enabling the concept of Web services, there's a long road to travel between standards and implementation.

W2W integration enables information and functionality from existing Web applications to be incorporated into new applications. The available W2W solutions also make the Web functionality reusable for other Web apps. W2W solutions allow any Web site functionality to be utilized as a Web service would be, as well as alongside Web services. In other words, like EAI, W2W integration provides the leverage of reuse without requiring adherence to standard application programming interfaces beyond HTML.

W2W vendors
The vendors that provide W2W integration capabilities essentially do so within the context of enabling composite applications that combine functionality from different apps. They may partner with or integrate with EAI solutions for back-end integration while providing the usually patent-pending W2W integration technology. Companies identified by ebizQ as offering W2W integration include Bodha, CrossWeave, iSpheres, Namaya and Orsus. These vendors all provide platforms that enable companies to build Web applications incorporating functionality from other Web sites or applications.

CrossWeave describes itself as a platform for composite applications and focuses on automating the manual processes. iSpheres creates what it calls a meta application, which actively monitors and reports on events occurring in disparate applications to create a command and control center. Managers define the business events and conditions they need to react to in real-time, and iSpheres monitors all relevant systems for the events.

Namaya automates manual interaction with external Web sites by "recording" the steps an end user performs to use external Web sites, and then creating integration components of these processes that can be reused with other Web applications. Orsus provides a process-based solution for developing and deploying Web and mobile applications. It contains WYSIWYG editors for specific target devices, including Web browsers and various mobile devices, and can integrate with multiple back-end sources and Web sites.

Bodha is unique among the vendors in that it focuses on applying its patent-pending Web integration technology to B2B solutions. Using W2W integration, Bodha can integrate with a transactional Web site, such as Staples, Federal Express or Amazon, within hours. Moreover, the integration is not intrusive and requires no software installation or programming at the transactional Web site, thereby providing rapid and inexpensive B2B integration.

We assume that more W2W solutions are emerging in different market segments. Interestingly, the competitor named most often by these vendors was hand coding.

W2W customers
In an effort to gauge the business requirements for W2W integration, ebizQ polled our Web site visitors. Out of 175 respondents:

  • 27.43% said they have an immediate need for W2W;
  • 24% said they foresee a need for W2W integration within the next six months;
  • 18.29% said they foresee a need for W2W integration within the next six to 12 months; and
  • 30.29% said they will not require W2W in the foreseeable future.
The business problems that current W2W technologies solve generally involve automating manual interactions with Web and other applications. The solutions that could benefit most from W2W integration and automation are CRM and online procurement applications, because both involve multiple manual interactions with Web sites.

The future of W2W
I expect W2W integration to become a more prevalent part of new application development. The concept of Web services is beginning to gather momentum, but many employees still spend a good part of their day manually accessing and integrating information and functionality from multiple Web applications.

Although the major integration platform vendors do not yet offer W2W integration technology, they will probably increasingly do so over time. As companies strive for competitive advantage in the fast-paced and rapidly changing e-business environment, they will achieve measurable benefits from integrating, optimizing and reusing information and functions from Web applications.

Selected W2W integration vendors
Company Product Web site
Bodha Bodha Rapid IntEgration Framework (BRIEF) www.bodha.com
CrossWeave CrossWeave Platform www.crossweave.com
iSpheres iSpheres MetaApp Framework www.ispheres.com
Orsus Orsus Uno www.orsus.com

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