Enterprise integration tools come of age

Saturday May 1st 1999 by Larry Marion
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Like most gawky adolescents, enterprise applications integration tools lack age and experience. They're not perfect, but they can still save you time and money.


The tide has turned. After several years of excessive attention due to unfulfilled promises and the subsequent backlash, enterprise applications integration (EAI) tools are entering a new phase. Even the skeptics are starting to say these tools provide significant benefit. Are they as good as their vendors claim? Of course not. Are they as bad as your worst nightmare? Not anymore.

Some of the EAI companies have staff who have successfully built tools to move data from one platform to another, but their expertise may or may not be useful for your problem.
Ron Davis, vice president of information services at Fujitsu Computer Products of America in San Jose, Calif., remains a doubter. In the early 1990s his unit of Fujitsu dumped a score of legacy applications in favor of the Oracle Corp. suite for financials and manufacturing and, more recently, began using the PeopleSoft Inc. human resources modules (version 7.5). Because the company is an ERP pioneer--it has been in production with Oracle Applications version 9.0 since 1994 (and has since upgraded to version 10)--Davis' division didn't have the option to use any of the EAI products. Fujitsu built a series of application programming interfaces using Oracle tools. That experience leads Davis to think the EAI players are a bit too green.

"They need a great deal of knowledge to make this work," Davis recently told me. "Some of the companies make all these claims of deep knowledge, yet they are only three years old. How did they develop all of this expertise in such a short time? Just to develop the data models is a tremendous effort in itself."

Officials at Active Software Inc., Constellar Corp., Convoy Corp., CrossWorlds Software Inc., the Frontec AMT unit of Frontec Group, New Era of Networks Inc. (NEON), TIBCO Software Inc., Vitria Technology Inc., and the other dozen EAI players defend their claims. They cite their experience at other firms doing related interface and integration tasks. CrossWorlds brags about its executive team's experience at Sybase Inc. NEON's executive team used to work at the Goldman, Sachs & Co. investment bank in New York City. That was ground zero for EAI development--Goldman Sachs funded and then pioneered the use of the Teknekron Information Bus (TIB) more than a decade ago as the conduit to pump stock market quotes into a variety of proprietary hardware and software platforms. The builders of the TIB then left Teknekron to start TIBCO. A number of those pioneers then left TIBCO several years ago to start Vitria.

Bottom line: Some of these companies have staff that have actually successfully built tools to move data from one platform to another, but their expertise may or may not be useful for your problem.

They were able to help Jack Kniess, manager of enterprise data at the Eaton Corp., of Cleveland, Ohio. He says NEON, and the MQSeries family of products from IBM Corp., provided enough functionality during Eaton's conversion to Oracle Applications version 10.7 that it made sense to move ahead after trials last year. While the tool set was far from polished--Kniess characterizes it as "rudimentary right now"--the NEON/MQ combination was able to save the company a significant amount of time. "We were committed to getting the applications up and running in six-month increments," he says, and the combo delivered.

Kniess has a particularly complex problem: Eaton is a wildly diversified manufacturer of industrial parts and equipment for automobile makers and other manufacturers. The company's IT infrastructure is decentralized to a level that would make most IT managers cringe--imagine 80 development and production instances of an ERP suite running in your company.

 

 

Match the tool to the problem

NEON, and many of the other EAI products, has a ways to go before it's the ideal solution to the integration and interface problems faced by ERP implementers. But I'm convinced these tools can save more time and money than they absorb because of their immaturity. You just have to be careful to match the tool to the problem, because the vendors' marketing messages aren't as crisp and clear as they should be. During the past year, I've attended more than a dozen presentations by EAI vendors, and their positioning statements leave many market watchers befuddled. I agree with the recent comment from PC Week columnist John Taschek: "What could be a $15 billion industry consists of companies that cannot for the life of them, tell anyone how they differ."

Essentially, there are four categories of EAI tools: middleware, connectors, process automation, and message brokering.

Middleware is a traditional data transport technology. These products usually use encapsulation to move data.

Vendors selling connectors have actually developed specific interfaces for specific data structures.

Message brokers use a hub approach that take messages such as events and forward them to the appropriate target database.

Process automation Process automation takes the highest level approach--the tool actually converts data from one format to another by using the source code from both applications

The differences are not as clear-cut in real life. Most of the vendors incorporate more than one approach in their products. That mix and match of technologies--reflecting a decidedly techie bent of many of the vendors--precludes clear differentiation. It takes a lot of analysis to understand which tool is most appropriate for which problem. There are differences. Some tools are best for batch problems, others for real-time challenges. Other tools are best for moving and converting raw data once, while still others are focused on real-time transfers of massive database tables from one application to another.

For more specific information about what the myriad of EAI tools do and don't do, check a massive Feb. 1999 report by Tim Klasell, vice president and research analyst-technical software, of the Minneapolis-based equity research firm Dain Rauscher Wessels, a unit of the Dain Rauscher Inc. investment bank. He recently provided Datamation and an affiliated Web site, ERPhub.com, a landmark report on enterprise applications integration technology and vendors. Klasell says the vendors do not provide a complete solution to an organization's ERP interface and integration problem, but they do point to solutions.

"No one EAI vendor provides the entire solution for all integration problems," Klasell notes, "Getting two applications from the same vendor to integrate may only require a middleware vendor, while weaving together hundreds of applications for a major financial institution would require all of the technologies."

Klasell and I developed a grid that provides some guidance about which vendors' solve what type of problem (see below). To read his entire 65-page report, please go to the new ERPhub.com Web site and look for the integration workbench. //

Integration challenge Technological approach Vendors
Workflow applications/ Content processing Process automationCrossWorlds Software Inc.
Extricity Software Inc.
IBM
New Era of Networks Inc. (NEON)
Software Technologies Corp. (STC)
VIE Systems Inc.
Vitria Technology Inc.
Near real-time message routing through multiple connections Message brokering Active Software Inc.
CrossWorlds Software
Frontec AMT
NEON
STC
TIBCO Software Inc.
TSI International Software Ltd.
Interfacing resources and transforming data structures Connectors Active Software
BEA Systems Inc.
Convoy Corp.
Constellar Corp.
CrossWorlds Software
Evolutionary Technologies International Inc. (ETI)
Frontec
IBM
Microsoft Corp.
NEON
Oberon Software Inc.
OnDisplay
STC
SmartDB
TSI
TIBCO
Vitria Technology Inc.
Data transportation and encapsulation Middleware Active Software
BEA Systems Inc.
IBM
Microsoft Corp.
TIBCO
Source: Dain Rauscher Wessels and Datamation

Larry Marion is an editor and consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the use of computer technology in manufacturing and finance. He is the former editor of Datamation, Electronic Business, and LOTUS magazines. He can be reached at lmarion@mediaone.net.


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