How loosely coupled applications beat middleware

This is a guest piece written for the Computer Weekly Developer Network blog by Phil Lewis, business consulting director for UKIMEA at enterprise software vendor Infor.

A lot of people in business hate the software that runs their company. Executives grudgingly accept the painful shortcomings of their software because they feel they have few practical alternatives. That pain usually stems from the fact that systems A, B, and C simply refuse to get along.

But isolated applications written in proprietary languages need not be tolerated. For a business to operate at the speed it needs to function, processes have to be quick and comprehensive. This means the software that enables – and controls – those processes, has to be linked together. There is no better demonstration of this than the moment those links break and complex business processes grind to a halt.

A business may be unable to ship product or to invoice customers. Cash flow can be interrupted. Operational reports that steer a business become useless. Users have to move from one application to another to find all the information they need. They can’t search for data across corporate software or work on a smartphone away from their desk.

Editor’s Note: It should come as no surprise to the reader to at this point find out that Infor specialises in enterprise software from “systems of record” to ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems — advocating a unified approach to enterprise wide application consolidation and management then is the company’s bread and butter.

So what do we do now?

Middleware began as an obvious answer: ‘point-to-point’ integration via custom-written code that translates from one application to the next. This soon became notoriously difficult to install, time-consuming to implement, and cumbersome to maintain.

Instead, the coupling between applications needs to be loose, without sacrificing security and integrity. This can be based on an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), which transmits common business language documents, based on OAGIS messaging standards.

Users should be able to search for any data element including, for example, customer name, invoice number, work order, etc. This is currently difficult because most applications have their own data structures and don’t enable data to be shared unless a master data warehouse is created — a big and costly job that should not be necessary with intelligent integration.

Proactive searching capability is the next step. Keywords or data elements can be tracked across all the business applications in a company and email, SMS or even Twitter can alert a user every time the software senses a process or a status change that involves the defined data element.

Integration also enables contextual information. By assessing where the user is – in a process – the system can present business intelligence, content and messaging that’s appropriate at that moment.

Intelligent integration is vital for those businesses looking to gain competitive advantage in the current economy. Moving faster and working smarter than the competition is no longer top of the ‘nice to have’ pile – it is top of the survival list. So in order to do this, software across the business must come together and yield insight, deliver value and drive growth.

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