Tech Guide: Taming The Legacy Integration Beast - InformationWeek

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8/20/2003
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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

Tech GuideLegacy integration may be the biggest problem facing enterprise IT departments today, in terms of scope and cost. Making old systems work with new systems is a gigantic challenge.

Hoping to leverage new Internet-based technologies, many companies--whether they're struggling to transform aging IT infrastructure into new Web-services applications, connecting internal systems to partners, or conforming to industry-mandated standards such as health care's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or commerce's UCCnet--are making legacy integration a top priority. The proof: Despite a trend toward tightened budgets over the past few years, spending on integration products and services has been climbing steadily.

The challenges are many--mainframes, enterprise-resource-planning software, electronic data interchange, customer-relationship-management applications, custom-made programs, minicomputers, Unix, client-server architecture. The list seems endless. "Companies have an enormous case of acute IT indigestion," says Rachel Helm, an IBM director of product market management. While multitudes of integration products exist, solving the problem seems to guarantee a migraine. As Byron Sebastian, VP and general manager of BEA Systems, says: "No one has really solved the problem of legacy integration [in a way] that's satisfactory to enterprises."

With today's added pressure of producing more with less, leveraging existing IT assets in new ways clearly is the smart way to go. Middleware--a blanket of technology laid atop a legacy system that converts the information passing through it into a language understood by all--can accomplish this goal, so the digital knowledge previously locked within is freed to flow to Web services. At least that's the vision conjured by hawkers of middleware solutions.

The vendors have squared off into two camps: enterprise application integration (EAI) and Web services. Amid the swirl of boasts, choosing sides seems fraught with danger. We'll attempt to sort through the confusion and illuminate a way that will tame the legacy integration beast. Chances are that the solution won't mean an either/or decision but perhaps a combination of the two.

What Is EAI?
EAI products began selling about 10 years ago. Back then, mainframe and ERP systems were often closed loops with their own dedicated terminals. EAI software freed data from those systems for use in other systems, such as PCs. Cobbling together such disparate systems typically meant relying on the heroic efforts of programmers crafting custom code. Each project was an expensive endeavor requiring new code and much tinkering. Over time, EAI evolved into more standard conversion engines, mounted with specialized adapters to different legacy systems.

Today's biggest EAI vendors include SeeBeyond Technology, Tibco Software, and Vitria Technology, which boast large libraries of adapters for applications from IBM, PeopleSoft, SAP, and Siebel Systems. Web-services vendors also make similar claims. Microsoft says its BizTalk server connects with more than 350 applications and adapters. BEA claims it has adapters for more than 100 applications.

Over the past three years, other vendors began promoting technology they call Web services. The term refers to an organization's ability to slice up its information assets for use on the Web as a new service. For example, instead of restricting employee data to specific individuals in the human-resources department, Web-services technology will deliver applicable pieces of that information, such as specific benefits information, to any employee requesting it.

Like EAI vendors, Web-services vendors also must offer ways to free information from legacy applications. Consequently, companies touting Web-services products, such as IBM, Microsoft, and BEA Systems, offer tools and solutions for legacy integration.

With the emergence of Internet technical standards--such as Universal Description, Discovery and Integration, Simple Object Access Protocol, and Web Services Description Language--both EAI and Web-services vendors are developing standards-based products designed to be interoperable and compatible. Thus, the line between the two technologies has blurred.

Web-services vendors insist they offer a more robust platform, consisting of all the technologies necessary to build a business Internet infrastructure, including portals, sites, and communications networks. However, EAI vendors, which generally have a longer history of actually integrating systems, have expanded their product lines, offering many of the same technologies.

"One of the greatest fallacies over the last few years is that Web services is fundamentally different than EAI," says Rick Clements, SeeBeyond senior director of products. "Web services are really just a sub-niche across the integration space to tackle a common problem."

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