Integration tools are creating plug-and-play world

We're getting to the stage where one EAI tool will just about do. Liz Warren reports

We're getting to the stage where one EAI tool will just about do. Liz Warren reports

Integration used to mean scrabbling around in the guts of your systems and writing significant amounts of code by hand. Today, a new generation of enterprise application integration (EAI) tools is moving us much closer to the plug-and-play approach needed to survive in the e-world, where many more systems, both internal and external, have to be integrated. But with no two integration projects being alike, can one EAI tool really meet all of your needs?

The answer is yes, although you'll probably still have to do some code-cutting because EAI tools are not at the plug-and-play stage yet. But while the latest generation of EAI tools are powerful and flexible enough to handle a wide range of integration challenges, those very qualities can also be disadvantages.

"We're using a single tool, Perwill, but the integration still involves writing an interface at both ends to export or import the data," explains Alistair Gray, group finance director at JAS Worldwide, an international freight forwarder with 110 offices in 40 countries. "That process can't be done automatically, because each country is running a different application, and our biggest problem has been that, because Perwill is capable of handling many different kinds of messages, it's difficult for the local system specialists to learn. Many of the offices consider it difficult to install and run, especially in terms of error reporting on a day-to-day basis. Although it's not complex conceptually, in practical terms it has been more complex than we envisaged at first."

JAS wanted to integrate its systems to automate the flow of documentation that has to accompany each shipment. And by linking all its systems to a central hub, the company could let staff access data on any customer anywhere in the world. Gray says many JAS offices were too small to justify replacing the multitude of existing systems with a single solution like SAP. On top of that, every office would need a local component to handle local customs and tax regulations, so JAS would still end up having to integrate multiple systems.

"The best approach was to leave our legacy systems in place but put something hardware- and software-independent on top that could take data out of the systems, process it and send it to the right destination system," says Gray. Perwill fitted the bill and its licensing model meant JAS wouldn't go bankrupt in rolling it out worldwide.

Derry Newman, IT manager of Sony Broadcast and Professional Europe, believes a single EAI tool can meet all a company's needs. He says Sony is using just the Crossworlds tool because EAI tools demand implementation staff with skill in both the tool and the target systems and are therefore expensive and scarce. Multiple integration approaches make hiring these skills more of a headache (and an expense) and increase a company's dependence on the one or two people who know how to use each tool.

Sony makes and distributes audio-visual products to TV production companies and corporate users. It has just finished implementing integrated in-house SAP systems and now wants to link them to its channel partners and customers. The aim with channel partners is to take cost and time out of the supply chain, while Newman sees linking to corporate customers as a strategic advantage. "The easier we are to do business with, the more sticky a supplier we become," he explains.

Sony chose Crossworlds because it has connectors - pre-built integration modules - for SAP and for other applications. "We didn't and still don't entirely know what we may have to connect to, so we need something that is flexible," says Newman. "The IT team also felt Crossworlds would require relatively few in-house resources to get up and running with each partner. That's been borne out with our first implementation, with General Electric in France, where it took just five weeks to get from our first meeting to passing messages successfully."

Newman admits there are drawbacks to using a single tool. "You don't necessarily have the optimum solution," he points out. "We've already had to buy an upgrade to get more connectors, as we encountered an unexpected system in a trading partner. Having said that, we've yet to run into an integration need where we haven't felt in a position to start discussing and planning. I can go to meetings with corporate customers and channel partners and not worry about what flavour of IT they've got."

Cable & Wireless Global, created last year out of four regional units to focus on data and IP transport services, has also purchased an EAI tool, WebMethods Enterprise, to help it develop a global infrastructure. However, WebMethods will be just one of a number of integration options available to the company.

Prior to the company's restructuring, some applications had already been drawn together through Web-based interfaces using BEA Weblogic, while Corba-based integration has been used at the network level. Cable & Wireless is also making use of the prepackaged integration facilities within many of the new front-office packages it is implementing, such as Clarify, to create self-contained application stacks. So far, WebMethods Enterprise has been used to pull together a number of business support systems from each regional unit, including Siebel, Clarify, SAP, Kenan Arbor BP and Architel Objectel's Order Management System.

"With integration, you need to understand the problem before you select the tool you use," says Richard Fernandes global IT architect at the company. "There is no one silver bullet and we are taking a very pragmatic approach."

However, he goes on to explain, selecting one primary EAI tool will help Cable & Wireless provide consistency across the multiple integration projects being undertaken in each unit as new global solutions are rolled out. "Until a few months ago, we found that systems integrators in different countries were coming back with different approaches to the same integration issues," he says. "An EAI tool allows us to provide blueprints to our systems integration partners for them to take away and implement."

He adds that WebMethods was chosen because it supports the bottom-up approach to enterprise application integration which Cable & Wireless favours, while offering good tool support for developers and a range of off-the-shelf adapters which match up with Cable and Wireless's existing applications.

So far, he says, WebMethods has supported everything the company has wanted to do. The main headache has been to find sufficient skills and the company is now embarking on a major training programme internally and with its systems integration partners.

Key Considerations when choosing an EAI Tool

  • What applications, interfaces, message formats and technologies are currently supported and what further enhancements are planned?
  • How easy will it be to adapt integration projects to changes in business or technology?
  • Does the tool suit your strategy, whether that's trying to put a long-term architecture in place or just trying to solve a point-to-point problem?
  • What developer skills and resources will be required?
  • Does the tool have a visual or rules-based interface which will allow it to be used by business users?
  • What support and services does the supplier itself offer and what partnering arrangements and training programmes does it have in place with systems integrators?

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