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Enterprise app integration takes teamwork

New brand of application linking tool requires outside help, coding

by Ted Smalley Bowen


(IDG) -- As a buzzword, enterprise application integration (EAI) rivals previous industry acronyms in rate of adoption, lofty single-product claims, and vagueness. However, the reality of large-scale integration projects remains one of organizations relying on multiple products, extensive consulting engagements, and a fair amount of custom code.

Those are not bad things in and of themselves, customers and analysts say. But they reflect the state of the market for EAI tools and, just as importantly, they underscore the organizational considerations necessary for successfully integrating disparate applications.

The technology commonly referred to as EAI runs the gamut from messaging software to distributed objects and transaction software, and covers products ranging from Vitria Technology's BusinessWare and CrossWorlds Software's namesake tools to products based on IBM MQSeries and CORBA ORBs.

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Messaging-based integration tools and approaches are prevalent, followed by component-level integration and then transaction-level integration, according to observers.

In fairness, EAI as a category is still forming, and although products do not deliver plug-and-play application linking, they do offer a major step forward.

"The whole thing's just emerging. We're just settling on what it is. [But] bottom line -- what's the alternative? It's hand-coding everything," said Ed Acly, an analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. "It's not perfect. Nobody gives you the whole thing, and it still involves some coding, but compare that to coding everything by hand. With current products, you can reduce a certain percentage of coding, although you might have to build custom connectors."

Corporate IT shops don't seem to have any illusions when it comes to the range of any one integration toolset. But in conjunction with a good architecture, off-the-shelf products can fit the bill.

"I would be hard-pressed to say there's one product out there that can meet our integration requirements, especially as the problems are still being defined and the technology is evolving,"said Mary McDuffie, senior vice president at Honor Technologies, a Maitland, Fla.-based financial services company owned by more than a dozen major banks and credit unions.

"It seems to be different from one month to the next, so it's a good idea to have a certain amount of flexibility and well-defined architecture that would allow a best-of-breed approach. So when we are ready for a particular phase, we can choose the appropriate tools," McDuffie said.

Individual products' shortcomings don't disqualify the technology, but they highlight the broad scope of integrating applications in large organizations. They also bear out the axiom that marketing messages often run the risk of setting expectations too high and too soon for a given technology.

But, regardless of the underlying technologies, application integration on a large scale runs into serious organizational issues. Specifically, when technology makes possible the addition or alteration of business processes, some friction is inevitable, according to users, analysts, and consultants.

"Organizational issues and problems dwarf technical issues. [Integration schemes must] address organizational issues," said Pete Privateer, director of marketing at Concept Five Technologies, a McLean, Va.-based systems integrator. "How do you make projects happen? You're integrating things from different fiefdoms, and you face questions like 'who owns the integration between application one and application two?'"

According to IDC's Acly, organizations should see less resistance when simply stringing together applications or creating some new data-access options. However, trouble can crop up when integration spells new business processes and shifts the lines of responsibility.

"The potential for rebellion is considerable," Acly said. "Probably where it's going to work smoothest is where there's a clear business need, instead of just change for change's sake."

The chemical business division of Amoco, in Lisle, Ill., found that application integration requirements don't have to be exotic to pose technical and organizational challenges.

In order to get recent projects off the ground, the Amoco operation needed to refine its internal communications system and ease the process of extracting reports from the corporate SAP financial system and older mainframe-based plant operations and inventory systems, according to Kerry Given, manager of information technology for Amoco's chemical business group.

To extend SAP reporting functions to business group managers and plant supervisors, Amoco integrated its Web publishing system with SAP financials, Given said.

The first hurdle was cleared with the installation of a Web-enabled publish-and-subscribe intranet system based on Lotus Notes.

"It's a nice hybrid of push-and-pull systems," Given said. "Users can set up profiles and have search agents monitor indexed HTML documents on the server, and when agents find matches to customer name or subject name, or other criteria, they notify users via [e-mail and SMTP]. From our group, it was adopted by the entire chemical company."

The Web publishing system was similarly tied into the business group's VM mainframe systems, Given added.

Amoco found that bringing in an outside consultant -- in this case, Concept Five Technologies -- was necessary not only for technical reasons, but also to help confront some internal organizational conflicts.

"When I initiated this project, my own IT staff was professionally offended that I didn't think they had the expertise," Given said. "They admitted that they didn't have the expertise, but argued that they could learn quickly. Our compromise was to have them work closely with the consultants. When we began to work with our SAP group, it was another bureaucratic nightmare. Concept Five has done a good job of not getting their defenses up."

Even automating simple processes, such as getting technical manuals online and distributing them, can unearth organizational structures that have to be accommodated or changed.

In establishing an extranet linking member in situations, Honor Technologies found that this seemingly straightforward task demanded more time and effort than expected, according to Christine Strock, vice president of product development.

"It was a surprise, the difficulty of just trying to find all the information members need," Strock said. "It forces you to take a look at all your business practices. It raises process and ownership issues."

Overall, serious large-scale application integration projects demand a combination of consulting, off-the-shelf tools, and custom coding.

"It's difficult for one company to deliver the same quality of product on the many different levels of what's going to be integrated," McDuffie said. "It's much more involved than one might initially think, particularly when you're looking enterprisewide."

Ted Smalley Bowen is Boston Bureau Chief for InfoWorld.

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