Magazine Article | May 1, 2001

The 'Holy Grail' Approach To: Enterprise Application Integration

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Is true enterprise application integration (EAI) feasible? Or is achieving complete EAI a mystifying legend, like our search for the Holy Grail? Some say when implemented correctly, EAI is both possible and magical.

Integrated Solutions, May 2001

The legend of the Holy Grail has inspired and mystified people for centuries. For some, the Holy Grail is more fact than fiction. For others, it exists only in myth. In any event, most everyone has tried at some point to wrap their minds around the legend. People search for the Grail for a variety of reasons. Some search for enlightenment, some search for a lost dynasty (with holy parentage), and some search for magic. As the legend endures, the Holy Grail concept applies to many endeavors of life - even in business. Specifically, parallels exist between the Holy Grail and a concept we've come to know as EAI (enterprise application integration).

The Search For Magic: A Well-Implemented EAI Project
When searching for an EAI solution, many companies are searching for a solution with extraordinary powers. Indeed, the idea of creating an application of the enterprise...a seamless, frictionless process for the environment...takes on a somewhat magical tone. For example, EAI as it relates to e-business: an online consumer purchases something and every transaction related to that purchase is sent through the necessary applications of the organization (without stops or human intervention). The inventory is adjusted and all transactions are recorded immediately. Is this kind of integration really feasible? "It's easy to talk about, but difficult to achieve," admits Paul Holland, CEO of Transoft Networks (Atlanta). "However, I think it's something that (if implemented correctly) can phenomenally change the ability of an organization to deal with new business opportunities, new markets, and an increased customer base."

"True EAI focuses both within an enterprise (application to application) and between an enterprise and its trading partners (enterprise to enterprise)," says Phil Myers, president and COO of Cyclone Commerce (Scottsdale, AZ). "And that's not an easy task." In the past, companies have connected their external applications. They've also managed to connect their internal applications. The magic they search for today? Connecting one company's network with another company's network. "This is an entirely different integration level than in the past," says Greg Cronin, CEO of Viewlocity (Atlanta).

The Search for Enlightenment: Look First Within The Enterprise
EAI and its integration capabilities are being recognized by larger Fortune 2000 companies as critical business issues. "It's not uncommon to go into an IT department and see dedicated personnel laying out and building EAI projects," explains Holland. "But they still need help with it."

Many organizations are searching for enlightenment, driven many times by the move from bricks and mortar to bricks and clicks. The underlying goal is to transform the organization's existing systems so they support that e-business initiative. Unfortunately, many find they don't necessarily have the knowledge to execute that kind of initiative. The good news is there's help available. "The key is to get help from someone who will partner with you for the long haul, because EAI is always a long-term project," adds Holland. "It is a strategy you're building. And this strategy will continue to evolve."

While it's true that companies should consider the length of the partnership, they should not assume their partner will have all the answers. Many companies have a notion that if they go to one vendor, that vendor will have every piece of technology needed to seamlessly integrate their enterprises. The reality though, is that most vendors focus on a few core technologies. It's not uncommon for a company to find they need a piece of technology that falls outside one vendor's realm. Therefore companies should first seek enlightenment within their own enterprise. Get to know your business systems. Figure out exactly what you need. Then, find a vendor.

"First look at the technology platforms you already have in place," advises Cronin. "Then look at what systems these platforms are linking, and what type of information they're trying to pass back and forth." Before the term EAI came about, it was referred to as middleware or bridgeware. It was built specifically to have, within one company operation, a connection from one business system to another business system. As Cronin explains, "It was usually an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system - typically an SAP, a PeopleSoft, or a Baan - that connected to an i2 or a Manugistics system." At that time, it was necessary to do that. Most ERP and best of breed players didn't build API (application programming interface) or connectivity points that would connect one application to another. Within the last five years, however, most vendors began creating integration points within their software. The integration points serve as an entry and exit point so that the application can integrate with other applications, and data can be passed back and forth.

However, legacy systems that were built more than five years ago or were built internally present integration challenges. These may require a lot of research. "You have to get into the guts of the code, and connect one application with the other application. And that's not easy," says Cronin. He was then quick to warn, "EAI vendors will make it sound easy though." It's critical for companies to know the ins and outs of all systems within their organization. "Look to the things that are the trickiest for you to deal with. Because you can bet your life, they'll be the trickiest for an EAI partner to deal with," advises Holland. "Then, when you really know how your organization ticks, seek knowledge from a vendor. Make the vendor tell you exactly how they're going to deal with those tricky things - at a technical level."

The Search For A Lost Dynasty: Let's Not Forget About That Legacy System
In many instances, the drive behind EAI is competitive efficiency. The organization may have maintained its market position for considerable time. It may have been a dynasty in its day. But to continue to keep its position, the organization must advance as technology advances...though not with blinders on. "Organizations go forward, chasing that shiny bright star called EAI. And they sometimes forget that at some point, everything has to be glued together," says Holland. Companies need to pay careful attention to the legacy system - that 25-year-old system that is still fundamentally the core business system. This is an area that companies and vendors sometimes brush over. "Everyone concentrates on the nice, new EAI architecture...and then it comes time to interface it with the tricky legacy system supporting the entire business," adds Holland. "EAI, in my view, is like building a processing chain through your organization. And the chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Frequently organizations put a lot of effort into only certain parts of the business chain. When it comes time to integrate everything, you may find that the legacy system - or even the connectivity to it - is your weakest link.

Without considering the entire chain of your organization, you're bound to have difficulties with enterprise integration - difficulties varying of course, depending on how close of connectivity you want. "One major difficulty is trying to connect a real-time solution, such as a WMS (warehouse management system) that usually runs on UNIX or AS-400, with a batch-oriented planning or ERP system," says Cronin. "It's difficult to sync data from those systems because one is planning in a batch mode, the other is executing in real time. And companies don't appreciate the difficulty of connecting even a basic system at that level."

Holland agrees that companies rarely deal with legacy integration appropriately. "They purchase a wonderful framework of EAI without considering connectivity into the legacy system. We see this a lot with e-business initiatives." For example, a company may have an e-business application printing out reports on a regular basis. It is not uncommon for those reports to be ripped off the printer, given to clerks and then typed into the core business application. "That is the level of EAI that a lot of people are still working on - because they didn't work it into the design up front."

Companies often lose sight of the general goal of getting things done for the business. We think too grand. We like big projects - big ERP, EAI projects that will someday create this magical framework, where all our applications will merrily interact. But someday is probably a long way away and the business must go on. As Holland says, "Look at your strategic goals of the business, and as you implement, implement in a tactical way that will deliver stepping stones of benefit, immediately." And let's hope this search for true EAI doesn't last nearly as long as our search for the Holy Grail.

Questions about this article? E-mail the author at StacyM