Ford puts XML in the driving seat

Analysts from Forrester Research recently spoke with John Stenlake, director of advanced IT at Ford Motor Company, about Ford's...

Analysts from Forrester Research recently spoke with John Stenlake, director of advanced IT at Ford Motor Company, about Ford's deployment of "eHub", its corporatewide integration platform. Ford's experiences offer valuable lessons for anyone considering XML solutions.

The pilot version of eHub is now up and running with three applications and Ford plans to extend the system to run tens of internal and partners' applications. Ford's two key choices in opting for the eHub system were:

  • XML for both internal and external app integration
    Ford realises that "integrating its own applications involves similar issues as trying to integrate with [its] partners' applications". By selecting a single method for sharing data and managing processes, Ford solves the B2B and application-to-application (A2A) problem in one stroke. Ford's use of XML today also opens the door for Web services further down the road.

  • BizTalk as the corporate-wide standard for integration
    Ford is building its integration platform for connecting internal applications and external partners on BizTalk. Why? Ford required an "XML-based product and a vendor with a clear vision for Web services standards". Ford was also looking for a strong, stable partner to work closely on integration projects.

Biztalk's XML foundation prepares it for the future
Microsoft has extended BizTalk's original mission of B2B integration with third-party adapters to prepare it for A2A integration. Although Microsoft hasn't yet brought BizTalk in for testing, Forrester believes that Microsoft has the following basic components which will support both internal and external integration:

  • XML-based messaging and transformation
    Microsoft built BizTalk from the ground up to construct and parse XML. BizTalk transmits messages using SOAP and publishes interfaces for apps with WSDL, which means that every application and partner interface is managed using XML. Microsoft also provides a mapping tool for connecting fields across multiple data schema based on an emerging standard called Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT).

  • Easy-to-use modelling and mapping
    With the acquisition of Visio, Microsoft offers users simple and familiar tools for modelling business processes and linking data fields. Using BizTalk Orchestrator, business analysts and IT staff can model and manage business processes like online order management that might span three or more applications.

Firms should road-test biztalk
Forrester likes the standards-based approach that Microsoft has adopted. BizTalk is a contender for integration projects that:

  • Connect internal apps to external partners
    BizTalk's strength is its original design as a B2B integration platform. Ford's pilot project targets three applications, including a logistics app for shipping cars via UPS and an inventory utility for its suppliers. BizTalk also helps Ford connect to the Covisint B2B marketplace by way of XML parsing and transformation tools.

  • Don't require straight-through processing
    BizTalk, like most message-based integration servers, doesn't handle end-to-end transactions natively. It suffers further from the overhead of XML parsing, translation, and rewriting. Firms that are looking for high throughput and transactional support should look to vendors like Crossworlds and BEA Systems.

  • Have few programmers available
    Business users will be productive with the tools supplied with BizTalk for building processes and mapping data schema in a short amount of time. It's a good fit for companies in short supply of experienced programmers versed in Java and C++ but whose integration projects require complex process building and schema mapping.

Early adopters face an uphill climb
Microsoft must still prove that BizTalk can handle the high traffic loads and processing power that Ford's eHub will demand. As Microsoft races to fill out BizTalk's functionality for integrating applications, firms that choose BizTalk 1.0 must deal with:

  • Missing adapters for common packaged apps
    BizTalk users will encounter recently built adapters from Microsoft partners like Actional and Taviz for common ERP and CRM systems like PeopleSoft and Siebel, but adapters for many other common business applications are still in the works. Other integration vendors like webMethods maintain large libraries of adapters that have been tuned to work well with packaged applications.

  • Few tool kits for building XML-based adapters
    Today, Microsoft provides simple prebuilt adapters - BizTalk Accelerators - to help firms start building connections to applications, but developers will need to work hard to build adapters to custom in-house applications. Integration vendors like Vitria supply comprehensive tools for building and assembling custom adapters quickly.

  • No comprehensive process analysis tools
    While Microsoft includes an administration tool for BizTalk, it doesn't offer any tools for analysing message traffic, workflow, or process health. Without thorough process reports and analytical tools, business users won't be able to monitor or optimise their processes effectively. Companies that purchase products like SeeBeyond's eBusiness Integration Suite are able to assess process status and analyse process performance using the built-in reporting tools.

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