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Tech Guide: Taming The Legacy Integration Beast

Smart integration moves call for leveraging older systems to work with and complement new technology
On integration software alone, an enterprise may spend anywhere from $60,000 to $400,000 or more. Add the expense of services required for integration and a project's cost could easily jump into the million-dollar or more range.

Such big expenditures demand some kind of return on investment. While many companies already understand the need for legacy integration, accounting for its benefits eludes clear financial numbers. It's hard to put a price on the benefits of improving business processes, speeding the flow of data, and creating new applications.

Therefore, companies who have implemented EAI solutions typically have had to rely on anecdotal evidence that the technology is financially justified. For example, they may point to a reduction in the amount of paper flowing through offices, how an increased number of people are given greater access to more information, and so forth. IBM sometimes takes a different tack by calculating for its customers how much money they save by implementing a comprehensive middleware solution, rather than deploying a piecemeal approach to integration.

Some Recommendations
Companies searching for EAI products may find they're already leaning toward certain vendors. For example, an enterprise dependent on an IBM mainframe may favor IBM integration. Some Microsoft shops choose Microsoft products as a matter of policy. Tibco is known for its high-throughput solutions. BEA Systems is a strong player in Java-based software and tools. Small startups such as Sonic Software and Cast Iron Systems offer new solutions for targeted applications.

Of course, no one wants to throw a bunch of money and engineers at an integration product without first carefully evaluating it. Here are some suggestions for getting started:

  • Establish an integration-competency center. Create a group of employees assigned to become in-house experts on integration technologies.
  • Read research reports and talk to outside experts. Keeping up on ever-changing products and technologies is difficult. Several research firms and an army of analysts closely track the integration-solutions market.
  • Establish criteria for judging solutions. Determine factors such as the needs of the enterprise, the role of open standards, the applications and systems involved, a timetable for deployment, the project's budget, and other concerns.
  • Narrow the choices and hold an evaluation round. Select a small group of vendors who must explain in detail their technology, features, deployment requirements, benefits, costs and other considerations.
  • Start small with a proof-of-concept project. Have vendors demonstrate their solutions on an application at a departmental level to prove they work. Evaluate for performance, ease of use, and deployment.
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    Thanks to standards, choosing need not lock anybody to a single vendor. Already, corporations are deploying a mix of technologies from different manufacturers. An application server will act as a host for composite applications, while message brokers are responsible for communications with a mainframe. Those technologies in a single implementation may consist of products from IBM, Microsoft, and SeeBeyond. "More often than not," says Microsoft's Wascha, "you'll see a hybrid approach."

    The hybrid approach may represent the most realistic vision of the future. Throughout the years, technology prognosticators have predicted the demise of mainframe computers, the emergence of a single operating system, interchangeable software building blocks, and other dreams of an idealized world. Instead, old systems continue to live, our choices of computing devices continue to grow, and a morass of new software continues to entangle business IT systems. In that messy world, integration software built on standards offers a bright ray of hope.

    Ken Yamada is a San Francisco Bay-area freelance writer.