Enterprise software strategies tend to go in cycles, particularly for implementing business applications, but whatever approach is dominant, fundamental challenges such as system integration can remain unresolved. In the past 30 years, we have gone from best-of-breed strategies to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite and back to best-of-breed with the rise of software-as-a-service (SaaS). SaaS has made it easy to spin up application instances, giving customers access to world-class functionality from different suppliers, but equally causing overnight system integration issues.
Historically, to solve this challenge, we have seen users adopting a point-to-point solution, whether that is a tool they create themselves or use a developer to write application programming interfaces (APIs) or using native adapters. Just when the first obstacles are overcome, the next application is added to the landscape, requiring yet another solution. Over time, it leads to a “rat’s nest” of point-to-point solutions, which ends up with a maintenance mess and a role-based or data security nightmare because applications are all over the place.
It can also create a release management nightmare, as IT teams must take all these pieces and stick them together to ensure the enterprise software environment is a sum of its parts. The solution to this system integration challenge should be more holistic than simply getting applications to talk to each other. The strategy should ensure that security, release management, monitoring, scheduling, workflow, error trapping and alerting are designed into the approach from the start. Although system integration is seen as the problem, the real question is not “How do I do system integration?” but “How do I keep all my systems modern and operating 20 years beyond when they were originally designed?”.
Don’t walk away from your IP and way of doing business
The goal should be to keep the core investment viable and modern, with the freedom to easily innovate around the edges. This can be achieved by keeping system integration top of mind during any transformation process. It should involve embracing existing enterprise systems, not replacing them. These systems should become the foundation for your company’s future growth and innovation. They are core to your intellectual property and way of doing business, with more than a decade of functionality built up in your in-house ERP system. To scrap all that means you’re walking away from 10 years of differentiation and customisations.
This is not the approach suggested by many software suppliers. They commonly have a published certification matrix, which says that if you are on a certain version of ERP, you must use only approved and certified browsers, operating systems, versions of Java and databases. For those on vendor support, customers must use the certified tools because the vendors can only test a certain number of permutations and combinations.
That means there is a finite list of technologies that can be used with your core ERP system. The challenge is that if you have an in-house ERP system, you are hooking up to a SaaS cloud model and must contend with the SaaS application constantly being upgraded, which, in turn, requires the in-house ERP system to constantly upgrade its adapters to stay in sync.
The prospect of updating your in-house ERP system once a month to remain compliant is something very few customers want to face.
But it does not need to be this hard. We always recommend looking at your needs today and leveraging what you already have, hooking them up to external data sources by building interfaces and standards around the core ERP to minimise the pain of system integration. Modern systems should be open systems architectures, which enable companies to invest around their core ERP platforms with integrations for analytics, data visualisations, e-commerce and social media, but always done in a way that does not disrupt existing intellectual property.
There are plenty of system integration platforms to get enterprise technologies to intercommunicate without using vendor adapters. Among the ways to enable applications to interoperate you can:
- Choose point-to-point solutions to enable applications to work together on a one-off basis. Write your own custom applications if you believe the integration functionality in a point-to-point solution is more than you need and you have specific requirements.
- Use enterprise-level software such as MuleSoft and Tibco to take a centralised approach to system integration, workflows, security, release management, timing, versioning and monitoring. However, this can make it confusing as well as expensive if you are juggling multiple technologies and suppliers. If you have the right partner, who understands both the complexities and opportunities presented by integrating applications with your core in-house ERP, you will have the freedom from the certification matrix to innovate and not disrupt your IP without the fear of being unsupported or non-compliant.
- Choose a smart journey to digital transformation. Enterprise technology has always looked for ways to improve and simplify without necessitating a complete overhaul of existing technology environments. For example, VMWare put an interface between the hardware and the application to maintain business continuity by switching between hardware without having to reinstall everything because the power supply went down.
If you create a level of separation between your core ERP investment and all these innovative best-of-breed applications by employing the right interface, you shouldn’t have to worry about your applications. Using the right tools will also give you greater confidence that you can solve the system integration challenge and, more importantly, it offers you greater flexibility in how you contemplate modernisation.
The decision to upgrade or not becomes a more logical process of elimination where you evaluate criteria to justify whether an upgrade is necessary, as with the right tools, you may not need to upgrade to the latest version of an application to continue innovating. Some of the key drivers to consider around upgrading decisions are:
- Will an upgrade solve real business goals or challenges?
- Will an upgrade give me access to new features or functionality that I will actually use?
- Can I solve compatibility or system integration problems without upgrading through less disruptive and less expensive tools?
- Is performance suffering, and if so, what is the cause of that performance issue and will an upgrade alone address the root cause?
Moving forward, when considering the system integration question, CIOs must build future-proofing, modernisation, and alternative approaches into the DNA of their strategies from the very inception of a project. The ambition must be to solve system integration not just for the immediate challenge, but also into the future. This will force organisations to build standards and policies that avoid the need for one-off point solutions every time there is a system integration issue.
Above all, adopting this mindset will avoid succumbing to the vendor’s apparent argument that upgrading is the only way to solve system integration. System integration and modernisation are intertwined, but modernisation without upgrading should become a mantra that all IT departments are happy to embrace.
Eric Helmer is chief technology officer at Rimini Street, where he advises clients on strategic innovative initiatives that align with financial, technical and functional long-term corporate goals across various applications, including Oracle, SAP, IBM and Microsoft.