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Process Oriented

As companies take a more holistic view of their business processes, application vendors are defining how they'll meet changing needs

With SAP's unveiling last week of its Enterprise Services Architecture, another major applications vendor has laid out a comprehensive vision of how software based on Web-services standards can help companies connect business processes across enterprises, spanning multiple systems and platforms. A future in which companies use the full potential of the Internet to actually run businesses based on real-time information seems to be getting closer.

Via technology dubbed NetWeaver, the third-largest independent software company in the world will deliver Web-application-server, portal, business-intelligence, and exchange functions that act as the lingua franca connecting xApps -- "snap-on" business-process applications that SAP unveiled last fall -- with each other or with existing applications. Available now, the platform will enable communications between applications using XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol. SAP says it will give companies the ability to deliver cross-departmental business processes that will enable new functionality from existing technology and skills without changing core system components. "We can provide a new layer of applications, applications which predominantly sit on services," SAP chairman and CEO Hasso Plattner said in a video played at last week's press conference in New York.

SAP is getting in step with the times. As business-technology executives wrestle with how to break their applications out of existing silos, they're turning to services-based architectures that can readily engage all levels of a business -- as well as its customers and partners -- in processes that have so far been automated or integrated only within departments or among particular groups.

By providing real-time connections that cut across a business' boundaries, Web services can improve service to customers, says Alex Robinson, IT director at Norwich Union Insurance, a subsidiary of Aviva plc. "This effectively gives us unlimited reach and gives our business partners access to our capability wherever they want to deploy it, so we can be where our customers want us to be," Robinson says. Since insurance products are information based, "manufacturing" of custom policies could take place at the point of customer contact, either by independent agents or even by consumers plugged into the company's policy-creation processes, Robinson says.

Bruce Decock, VP of IT and CIO at chipmaker LSI Logic Corp. Photo by Stephen Aviano.

LSI Logic has tied together various customer-service systems, providing better service, says VP of IT and CIO Decock.
Companies think first and foremost about business processes, not applications, says Bruce Decock, VP of IT and CIO at chipmaker LSI Logic Corp., which has been testing SAP's software. "We don't necessarily want to deploy technology; we want to deploy the right business solution," he says. LSI, which runs software from Oracle, SAP, and Siebel Systems alongside custom applications, has tied together various customer-service systems so that customer reps can access all information on a client, providing better service, he says.

"Web services are as important as the client-server revolution," says Gartner research director Charles Abrams. "We're finally using the full potential of the Internet to unite machines, information, and platforms."

SAP isn't the only vendor hoping to help companies evolve the way they think about business processes. PeopleSoft Inc. and Siebel Systems Inc. "have got pieces of their road maps out, and they're being implemented today," says longtime SAP watcher Mark Smith of Ventana Research. The question for customers, he says, is whether SAP's "road map is better than PeopleSoft's or Siebel's."

SAP says NetWeaver works with Microsoft's .Net architecture and IBM's Java 2 Enterprise Edition-based WebSphere technology, two competing Web-services platforms. "If it's better for our customers, we'll be Swiss," SAP executive board member Shai Agassi said at last week's event.

Companies are anxious to exploit the potential of Web services. When insurer Cigna Corp. decided to build a portal to provide customized information to subscribers to its health or financial plans, Eric Consolazio, senior VP of IS, realized the "monolithic" applications the company had built for divisions that ran on separate systems weren't up to the task. Using IBM WebSphere and XML, Cigna's IT team decided to "pull these apps apart and break them down into Web services so a person can pick and choose what they want in the view," drawing data from Cigna's back-end systems and external sources. Now it's preparing for the near future when employers want to plug Cigna's Web service into their own Web sites. "We're not going to charge for this service," Consolazio says. "This is going to be the cost of doing business. We just want to be the first ones to the table."

As more businesses come to the Web-services table, SAP and other vendors aim to be ready with new architectures to feed their hunger.

Photo by Stephen Aviano.

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