Integration Pioneers for the 21st Century

“Doesn’t work well with others.” Whether written on a grade-school report card or an adult’s annual performance review, this simple phrase can serve as a red flag highlighting a significant personality flaw. In today’s culture, from the classroom to the boardroom, teamwork has become a must-have virtue.

This teamwork trend also rings true in the IT arena, where software that does not work well with existing applications frequently is sent to the proverbial corner. In the past, the quest for seamless software installations often created an endless cycle of high-paying work for integrators and consulting firms, which spent most of their time trying to make massive enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions work with legacy applications.

Now, however, by using next-generation technologies, both software giants and boutique development firms are hoping to transform the way corporations integrate their IT infrastructure, software and solutions. Inspired by economic pressures and the push for real-time information, these integration pioneers could change the way ERP solutions are sold and implemented.

All-in-One vs. Best-of-Breed

Vendors have plenty of motivation to become pioneers. An overall decrease in IT spending prompted by economic weakness has created a significant shakeout in the ERP category. As a result, major players have acquired some of their smaller competitors, while weaker companies have fallen by the wayside.

However, although recent events have cast an aura of invulnerability upon the market leaders, integration challenges could provide niche software providers with a thorn to thrust into these giants’ sides.

For example, two approaches to corporate software purchasing have created two distinct strategies for taming the integration beast. In the first scenario, a company standardizes as much computing power as possible around an ERP application from a major vendor. Legacy applications then are hooked into the larger solution via customized code written by consultants or internal IT personnel. The major ERP vendors invest heavily in creating toolkits, extensions and adaptors to make customized development easier.

In contrast, the second scenario capitalizes on best-of-breed software. This approach decreases the significance of any single vendor, placing importance instead on finding the highest-quality software in any given category. Vendors using this method must provide interoperability and integration capabilities if they expect to be successful.

A New Kind of Network

Best-of-breed heavyweight Siebel Systems knows its CRM systems frequently are chosen by companies running back-office ERP solutions from competitors. That is why Siebel developed its Universal Application Network, which the company touts as the first player in a new product category.

“We have broken new ground here,” Bharath Kadaba, vice president and general manager for Siebel’s Universal Application Network, told the E-Commerce Times. “Universal Application Network can be used to integrate not only Siebel CRM systems, but all applications throughout the enterprise.”

Kadaba said that in the past, companies that acquired a CRM system had to spend significant time and money hand-building processes to connect the new software to existing back-office processes. In contrast, Universal Application Network is based on open standards and focuses on integrating processes, rather than applications or data.

The solution, which has been recognized by research firm Gartner as a pioneering innovation in integration, saves clients between 40 and 60 percent compared with traditional integration methods, according to Kadaba. “Our software plugs in and runs on top of existing infrastructure,” he said. “We’re not coming in and ripping out what the client already has in place.”

In contrast, Kadaba said, large vendors like SAP tell customers that if they buy an end-to-end solution, an integration problem will not exist. This is a myth, he added, since many large corporations have literally thousands of applications that must pass information among each other.

Cozying Up to the OS

In addition to the end-to-end and best-of-breed options, a totally new approach to integration has been taken by Quantum AI, whose QuSystem solution soon will begin beta testing in two major corporations. Rather than providing custom code to help applications communicate with each other, QuSystem fits between the application and the operating system.

The program, which occupies only two-thirds of a floppy disk, allows applications to cooperate in diverse and distributed network environments. As a result, it allows mixing and matching of data types, applications and platforms.

“Our interoperability system embraces both old and new software,” Richard Fiorella, president of Quantum AI, told the E-Commerce Times. “Customers don’t need to fix their technologies, they need to interconnect them. By using our product, they will spend half the price. Plus, they’ll be free to focus on their domain knowledge, rather than retrenching and retraining their people.”

The old way of integrating products — hiring consultants to write endless lines of custom code — does not provide high value or usability, Fiorella added.

“At the end of the day, these integration tools become nothing more than custom software wrappers,” he said. “You end up paying astronomical professional services rates to an integrator trained on that product — if you can find one. Or else what you bought becomes shelf-ware. The customer ultimately is left holding the bag with new technology and unable to execute off of it or achieve the [return on investment] they were promised.”

Betting on Middleware

Another company, longtime integrator Sybase, has created next-generation middleware dubbed Sybase Integration Orchestrator. This software provides a platform on which business consultants and technical analysts can work together to streamline business processes.

By using a product like Orchestrator, companies can achieve incremental results in a shorter time frame, which can be much more satisfying than waiting for a long-term integration plan to be put in place, Bill Jacobs, senior product manager for Sybase Integration Orchestrator, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Return on investment is being watched so intensely now that customers do not have the patience to wait for results,” he said, adding that this trend has dramatically increased the pace of consolidation among vendors while also tilting the scales in favor of consolidated application platforms.

“The right vendors are those that are offering more pieces in a single box,” he noted. “This helps deliver quick results at a reasonable price and avoids the time and expense of integrating the integration platform.”

Integrating the Best

Because of today’s economic realities, most large-scale integration projects are being broken down into small pieces from the outset, confirmed Tom Moran, vice president of business development at IT consulting firm NCS Technologies.

“There are still some US$10 million projects out there with big hopes and big dreams,” Moran told the E-Commerce Times. “But clients are starting to realize that there are benefits to starting smaller.”

He warns clients against believing that any vendor can provide a “silver bullet” answer to their integration headaches.

“Shame on anyone who buys into that,” Moran said. “You can’t expect all of your problems to be addressed — straightforward and simple — right out of the box.”

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