Enterprise Application Integration can help computer systems in the different departments within your organisation talk to each other. But it is an immature and expensive technology, warns Danny Bradbury
What is EAI?
EAI stands for Enterprise Application Integration. It's a means of taking the many different types of application data that exist in most larger organisations and converting them, so that each application can communicate with the others more effectively. EAI is one type of product in a larger software category called "middleware". Middleware is a generic term referring to those products that enable different pieces of software behind the scenes in an organisation to work with each other.
Where did it come from?
EAI grew out of the market for large-scale data exchange, where huge data files would be transferred between different database applications. Suppliers in this market realised that their customers had lots of different applications that needed to speak to each other, but that this software has often been installed by different departments.
The suppliers developed products that would exchange information between the software applications effectively. As these products evolved, the software suppliers developed ways to build business rules into them. This gave them the ability to exchange data intelligently, so that the software could make automatic decisions about exactly where the data went based on the nature of the data itself.
Will it help my e-commerce operation?
It can be used to help your e-commerce operation in an indirect way. One of the biggest problems for larger companies trying to succeed at e-commerce is the lack of information exchange between different applications at the back-end. Large companies can often have multiple sets of details for one particular customer because they have different departmental computer systems that do not exchange information automatically.
What are the downsides? EAI companies are quick to pitch the benefits of these products, but the truth is that they are extremely expensive, often running into tens of thousands of pounds. They are expensive because they are a means of glueing together lots of complex infrastructures in a sophisticated way, mapping different types of data to different business rules. This requires costly consultancy fees, alongside the hefty licence fees that you will pay for the software.
Because the market is still relatively immature, it's also worth thinking about the quality of the implementation tools. The tools are still developing - they need to become more intuitive and more safety measures need to be built-in. Features such as impact analysis - defining what happens to your data structure if different business rules are changed - should be included.
Whataboutbusiness-to-business e-commerce? Companies wanting to work together in a B2B e-commerce scenario probably won't find EAI useful for exchanging data, even if they are long-term partners with a complex set of business practices. The depth of integration afforded by EAI is such that it would probably appeal to companies going through a merger who wanted to tie elements of their existing systems together very closely, rather than companies who could probably do just as well exchanging flat-file text documents or XML-based trading documents in the form of e-mail.
How EAI could help you
Imagine that you are a financial services company with three different divisions: home insurance, life insurance and retail banking. A customer currently uses your retail banking and home insurance services, and logs into the home insurance Web site to change his policy because he is moving to a bigger house. Your retail banking service should be able to update its records to reflect the change of address, even though it may be running on a different computer system or piece of software. It should also alert staff to contact the individual to talk about the possibility of assistance with a mortgage, or other loan. Finally, the life insurance system should be able to identify that the customer may need life insurance - one reason for moving to a bigger house is that a child is on the way, which creates an impetus to obtain life insurance.
There are opportunities for cross-selling to obtain new business, and the automatic update of customer details across the company's different divisions will help to retain existing business by making things easy for the customer. All of this will be very difficult if your applications cannot speak to each other in an intelligent way.