Untying the Integration Knots

A version of this article first appeared in eB-21, published 10 times a year in Europe by TBC Research .Based in London and San Francisco, TBC Research helps senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions through its magazine, research, and events portfolio

While most of us have heard enough about application integration to last several lifetimes, Aubrey Chernick, chairman and CEO integration vendor Candle, feels that integration is still in its infancy. "We're barely at the beginning of the integration industry," says Chernick. "There are trillions of lines of code created and our major issue in integration is not the competition but the company's own IT organisation." It seems the oft-cited "spaghetti" that underlies most large companies' systems is still far from being unraveled.

Chernick likens the evolution of application integration technology to the growth of the database. Companies began using flat files, then moved to proprietary application databases, of which several versions found favour, before reaching today's situation where Oracle, IBM and Microsoft are the only sizeable players worth mentioning.

Yet for such an early market, significant moves are already afoot that demonstrate signs of maturity. First, vendors are moving beyond the IT department to sell the business benefits of their enterprise application integration (EAI) offerings. Their products, meanwhile, are merging and morphing to better suit these enterprise demands. And most importantly, customers, stung by some early failures, are taking a more cautious long-term view.

Just last month, consolidation in the XML space saw market leader Iona buy Netfish, while Sybase announced its intention to buy New Era of Networks for $373m in stock and to integrate its EAI technology into its Enterprise Portal offering. Fred Manhartsberger, senior VP and general manager for Sybase EMEA, says NEON will occupy an important part of its Enterprise Portal vision: "We had been looking at the need to have integration at not only the data and information flow level but also at the application level. NEON gives us the opportunity to have that in the near term."

Meanwhile, IBM and Microsoft brought together their ebXML and SOAP standards. The response from analyst Giga, whose report was headlined "Hooray!", summed up the relief the industry felt. IBM's UK software technical strategist, Kevin Malone, says: "IBM and Microsoft have got together and worked on standards for the first time. If you look at Microsoft.net, it's scattered with standards, which is unique for Microsoft. The big players are going to do the value add, sophisticated stuff, because the whole e-business phenomenon is about how to implement and exploit the standards that are there."

For users, historical integration has been based around messaging middleware. This inevitably involved IBM, whose MQ Series product dominates, and around which a significant cottage industry has grown. IBM's recent Partner World conference was attended by some 5,000 delegates looking to build on the MQ Series platform.

But MQ Series itself only provides a transport mechanism for data. The next level up involves adding in awareness of the message content and specifying rules about how to deal with it. Companies like Candle and CommerceQuest have built integration suites around MQ, which enable customers to bring together different transport media. IBM itself has licensed New Era's MQ Series Integrator, and added in its own Workflow engine.

The EAI vendors then moved up to an application level by providing pre-defined hooks into applications - NEON has 15 adaptors covering seven applications-- together with software development kits to add hooks into other unnamed application sources. By abstracting the application links into a hub and spoke arrangement, they have rescinded the need to modify the underlying applications. The EAI vendors are now stressing a process approach, along with certain ERP vendors who have conducted some work of their own. For example, JD Edwards has licensed source code from Netfish, so that it can provide and manage adaptors to other applications on behalf of its customers. By drawing a process map over EAI, vendors can demonstrate real benefits to their projects.

However, some observers believe the market has moved on again. "I think the pendulum has now swung away from traditional EAI to exchange platform providers", says AMR analyst Simon Pollard. "Users have realised that no one vendor in isolation can be good for all their individual needs. They need a vendor with an architecture that allows them to build the integration for all the different layers in an exchange." But he adds: "Today, there isn't a company that has a leading trading exchange and a leading EAI portfolio." Pollard predicts further consolidation as vendors try to cover all the bases. Whether a killer B2B application will one day emerge is debatable, but in the meantime he recommends clients pursue a dual approach. "Data migration and consolidation is the correct strategy to pursue, but the technology does not stop people accessing data locked in legacy applications. It takes a little longer, is less standard, requires more maintenance and is less desirable, that's why the long-term view is important."

Ed Wrazen, European marketing director of CommerceQuest, agrees a piecemeal strategy is best: "I have yet to see a company that has implemented EAI for the whole enterprise. We usually come in for a particular requirement and then incrementally build on that. Company directors are now more savvy. They recognise that it does not have to be expensive and difficult to implement if they look for a solution that is adaptable."

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