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Emerging Technologies: Closing The Integration Gap

Integration technologies is an old topic, but Karyl Scott may be seeing something new. Next-generation enterprise integration lets you recycle existing application components to create flexible, modifiable Internet-aware applications.

Let's face it. Enterprise integration is a massive hairball.

The job of bringing together disparate systems in a meaningful way is complex and expensive. But there's some good news. I can't say that it's really getting easier to integrate enterprise applications, but the solutions are maturing to better mirror changing business needs rather than just technical requirements.

Over the past several years, integration technologies have evolved from a data-centric view of the world to a business process orientation. The latest integration technologies are focused on bringing together all sorts of enterprise data, from mainframes and Web applications to databases and client-server systems, in a close to real-time environment.

But perhaps the most interesting development in the integration space today is the notion of composite applications. Take some application logic from a mainframe application, combine with application data from your database, and build some new business logic around these existing apps. Presto, you have an entirely new Internet-aware application that's flexible and can be modified to meet the needs of various user constituencies. But it's running on existing and unaltered mainframe and Unix application logic.

That's what I call recycling!

Component applications increase the IT department's return on investment for systems that are already in place and amortized. And they let corporate developers add value to existing investments with innovative new business processes.

The decision to integrate disparate applications isn't a technical issue, says Greg Kemp, chairman of KnowledgeStorm Inc., an online IT marketplace in Atlanta. It's a question of consolidation and innovation. Businesses integrate applications to gain greater operating efficiencies and to drive down costs of doing business.

But there are costs associated with adopting a new integration product. You'll have to weigh those costs against the perceived value of innovation. The adoption must have a clear impact on your company's ability to innovate and to differentiate your products and services in the marketplace.

Competitive marketplace pressures are causing many companies to integrate not only their internal systems but also those of their customers and trading partners, says Bill Barhydt, CEO of KnowNow Inc., an event-driven integration software company. The Internet is a big instant messaging system, and the goal of all businesses should be online supply chain collaboration.

Another driver behind composite applications is the age-old goal of gaining a common view of the customer, says Paul Koenig, marketing VP at Contivo Inc., maker of data repository technology used in integration projects. That common view applies not only to how a company views its customers but also the view a company presents to its customers. That means any new integration technology must allow the IT department to change the user interface, security settings, personalization, data access rights, and presentation of the component application.

A number of software vendors are addressing one or more of these business requirements in their enterprise application integration offerings. Here are a few that I think are particularly promising:

Asera in Belmont, Calif., makes a development and deployment platform called the eBusiness Operating System, designed to help companies integrate new and existing IT assets in a common framework. According to Asera marketing VP Mark Atherton, Asera is helping companies like British Petroleum plc build a real-time enterprise that can increase customer service levels, drive costs out of transactions, give partners real-time access to production status, and generate daily snapshots of incoming orders. Asera helps companies integrate data, applications, and business processes into a common workflow.

CrossWeave Inc. of Oakland, Calif., has developed the Internet Application Platform for building composite Web applications using existing applications. The CrossWeave approach is really focused on creating a unified and flexible user interface, application flow, and business logic without altering the underlying logic of existing applications.

Cape Clear Software of Dublin, Ireland, and Walnut Creek, Calif., has crafted a rapid application development tool for building Web services. CapeStudio automatically generates code for Java or Visual Basic from Web Services Description Language files, cutting the time and complexity of development. According to company founder Annrai O'Toole, Web services are a key component of the new type of enterprise integration and component applications we're seeing in the market. And, he adds, Web services are bound to signal the death knell of traditional EAI vendors, whose products were not designed to scale to Internet size transactions.

KnowNow, a Mountain View, Calif., startup has developed an event router that's designed to let various divisions of an organization or multiple companies collaborate, exchange data, exchange manufacturing schedules, or any other process, using exiting applications. If you're a small company, you might be using QuickBooks and an Excel spreadsheet to run your business. If you're a big firm, changes are you're running SAP R/3 or Oracle Financials. Companies are not going to stop using these apps just because they need and want to collaborate in an extended supply chain. KnowNow will help companies connect without disrupting their existing IT infrastructure.

The point is that you shouldn't have to change your existing IT infrastructure or endure a Herculean integration project to unify your supply chain, says KnowNow's Barhydt. "We solve the integration problem outside the firewall--something most EAI vendors haven't yet tackled," he says. KnowNow brings persistence to the stateless Web, something that's needed if you're going to carry out transactions over the Internet.

Given today's economic pressures, corporate IT departments are being asked to do more with less, and to derive greater value from their existing assets. A number of promising solutions are coming to market to help IT professionals do just that. And that's no hairball.

Can these vendors pull the application component rabbits out of their hats? Or, in the long run, will they just add another useless tool to the complex mix? Tell Karyl Scott about it in her new discussion forum at http://www.informationweek.com/forum/karylscott.

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