Thursday, April 18, 2024

Bring IT All Together on the Intranet

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This story was originally published in Intranet Journal.

The information and applications that are available to the corporate Intranet, the greater its usefulness. Enterprise application integration (EAI) addresses this need by enabling multiple applications within an organization to share information and functionality over the Intranet. A critical principle of EAI is the ability to integrate islands of automation without having to replace existing legacy systems that are performing satisfactorily. To accomplish this an EAI architecture needs to incorporate application-to-application adapters, business rules, data transformation technologies and workflow management. In its most mature form, EAI enables subject matter experts rather than programmers to quickly and efficiently change business processes. The following steps provide a road map for getting from A to Z.

1. Let operations drive the implementation

One of the primary problems with many early Intranet implementations was that top management and information technology drove the project with relatively little input from operating management. The result was, frequently, that access to mission-critical legacy applications were neglected in the rush to adopt the newest technological solution. If EAI is to overcome this problem, the various divisions and departments within the organization must play a leading role. The idea is to ensure that the architecture of the EAI solution gives primary weight to the needs of the operating arms of the organization.

“Using an integration broker architecture approach can eliminate the seemingly endless number of application interfaces imposed by point-to-point integration schemes.”

The emerging technology of EAI provides a robust structure to preserve the functionality of the legacy systems while addressing critical connectivity and communications needs with leading-edge technology. When operations drive the EAI implementation, the result can be the integration of islands of automation that have risen throughout most large organizations, resulting in dramatic improvements in business efficiency and closer communications with customers, suppliers and partners. Later down the road, operations will also play a key role in the steering committee that has the mission of reviewing and guiding the project to ensure it stays aligned to the business goals.

2. Analyzing your IT infrastructure

In the 1960s and 1970s when companies began to acquire first-generation business computers, those systems were used to reduce costs and headcount by automating rote tasks as part of static and highly-structured approach to information management. As information technology proliferated throughout the organization, a wide range of different applications were implemented, at the department, division and enterprise level.

As companies move into the Internet economy, the need has arisen to obtain additional efficiencies and interact with the digital economy by integrating these islands of automation. The first step is mastering your application portfolio by determining which systems exist within the organization, what functions they are capable of performing, what other applications they communicate with if any and how they fit into your long-term e-business strategy. In a large number of cases you will probably discover that these applications are performing a critical function effectively yet are unable to communicate effectively with other important parts of your organization, wasting time and resulting in poor decisions because information is not available. The existence of applications such as this is a good reason to implement an EAI strategy. The basic idea is to integrate the application logic that implements business processes within an enterprise, which usually happens to be the same business processes that partners and customers will be interacting with over the Web.

3. Establish your business goals

Far too much EAI activity today is being driven by technology rather than business objectives. What should be done instead is to first develop a macro level business strategy that provides a road map for adapting a business to the era of e-business. Just like developing a business strategy for the old economy, an EAI strategy should start by considering a business’ current position in the market including strengths and weaknesses, products and distribution channels, the challenge posed by competition, new opportunities in the market, etc. But at the same time, a business needs to consider the opportunities and challenges posed by the ability to integrate existing applications both to each other and to the Intranet, such as the potential to interact directly with customers to streamline distribution channels as well as the competitive threat posed by new market entrants leveraging the Internet. The next step is mapping a path to implement that strategy while putting the primary emphasis on delivering a positive experience to customers, channel partners and the others with whom you interact. For example, several years ago Federal Express set out to provide its customers with the current location and status of any of the 2.6 million packages the company will deliver today. Providing these capabilities required integrating legacy systems as well as developing wireless devices used by collection and delivery agents to scan most packages 5 to 7 times between pickup and delivery and to automatically transmit updates to the nearest regional center. This strategy dramatically improves the level of customer service that the firm is able to provide.

4. Establish your EAI architecture

An enormous amount of time and money is probably invested in the systems that run your business. Replacing these systems with parallel systems designed to interface with other parts of the organization and e-business systems doesnt make good business sense in most cases. This creates the need to develop an architecture that can communicate with and extend existing systems by integrating them with new packaged and custom applications that service your supply chain, channel network and customers.

The EAI architecture should, first of all, address the issue of communicating with the disparate applications in the organization. Secondly, it should deal with converting data structures into a common format and, third, it must create business processes that link the integrated applications. Consider the situation of a firm that has problems communicating with customers and wants to implement a leading-edge customer relationship management system to address them. Without provisions for interfacing with back office systems, connectivity will require multiple manual steps with the result that information will often be incomplete and out of date. EAI architecture can address these issues by integrating the existing ordering and inventory systems with the new CRM to eliminating manual processing. When the CRM system is executed, it calls each of the integrated applications in a sequence that corresponds to the flow of the business process. This will make it possible for the CRM to automatically initiate an order and pass customer demographics and information to the ERP system which can then initiate the manufacturing process using existing methods.

5. Evaluate and select EAI tools

An early approach to EAI was to write hard-coded point-to-point interfaces that allow the business logic in one application to communicate with other applications.The problem with this approach is that it requires existing applications to be modified, which can introduce bugs, and also creates a considerable amount of maintenance work. This approach has been largely superceded by a new generation of software that integrates both data and business processes between a wide range of different applications, from custom mainframe applications to the latest packaged e-business solutions. These newer generation products cut IT costs by creating a modular, scalable, flexible integration environment, and by providing the ability to make transformation and routing changes through a high level language or GUI interface. Because these new tools add an independent, noninvasive layer, nothing has to be torn apart while the integration solution is developed. Companies can integrate ERP systems with legacy applications, then easily incorporate state-of-the art e-business applications. Mainframe and other legacy systems that are already running efficiently can continue to shoulder their part of the workload while connecting seamlessly to newer Web-based solutions. Using an integration broker architecture approach can eliminate the seemingly endless number of application interfaces imposed by point-to-point integration schemes. Instead of an interface between each application, 56 interfaces if you have 8 applications, only a single interface is needed between each application and the integrator. The technological requirements for an EAI implementation are by necessity quite strict. With data transformations, business rules and workflow logic that integrates many mission-critical applications a single platform, the EAI solution must provide continuous availability, scalability and ironclad security. The key to success of the EAI solution is in its ability to reuse or preserve critical business functionality and to make the integration scheme transparent to its user community.

6. Develop the EAI process

The first step is initiating communications among all the disparate applications which have typically been written in a variety of different environments and were never designed to communication with one another. Most EAI infrastructures are based either upon a message or an application integration platform. The second step is harmonizing the different data structures used by these applications. Products that automatically transform data into normalized structures can speed this process. The third step is coordinating the flow of information among the different applications. Business rules and workflow play a critical role in this process. An example of a business rule might be: “If a customer places an order of $100 or more from the web site, shipping is free.” Should this policy be modified, a central integrator makes it possible to make the change in only one spot, the integrator’s core, rather than in several individual applications. The workflow of a new service order taken by a telecommunications call center might be: 1) transfer the customer ID from the CRM system to the service system 2) Query the service system to verify that the requested service is available in the customer’s area 3) If the service is available, then place the order in the provisioning system and enter the customer into the billing system 4) Send the scheduling and cost information from the provisioning system back to the CRM.

7. Pick the right partners

A large percentage of medium and large companies outsource some or all of their EAI development and implementation to avoid the difficulty of locating and high cost of retaining skilled IT staff members. Most EAI applications fit the main criteria for a good outsourcing project – a large project that has been defined to the point that it does not require day-to-day interaction between business and development teams. There have been many cases where an outsourcing team is able to make dramatic improvements in a new or existing EAI application. Typically these improvements do not necessarily stem from an increased level of skill on the part of the outsourcing team but rather flow from the nature of outsourcing. The outsourcing team brings fresh ideas and perspective to their assignment and is often able to bring to bear methods and solutions that they have developed on previous assignments. The outsourcing team also does not have to deal with manpower shortages and conflicting priorities faced by internal teams. The outsourcing team may also be able to leverage staff members in other countries in order to provide skills that are in short supply and reduce delivery time. Look for an organization that provides depth of experience in each area of your IT infrastructure involved in the integration, including both leading-edge e-business and legacy host systems. With the right organizational focus, clear business goals, cutting-edge EAI tools and knowledgeable partners, your integration effort can exceed the expectations of your internal and external customers.

Large-scale integration pilot

One major company seemed, on the surface, to have a relatively simple integration problem. Data from front-end applications needed to be transmitted to the corporate office and then updated to RDBMSs. Each data flow represents a different service provided by the customer. Complications, however, arose from the fact that each new service offered by the customer required additional programming to edit, reformat and store data. Changes in business rules required expensive program modification and extensive coordination to make sure all systems were reasonably consistent. Finally, integration between the front-end and back-end systems was required to ensure that data in one system (addresses, for example) matches data in other systems as changes occur. What was needed was a way to centralize business rules and allow for the propagation for changed data.

A recently completed pilot used using Sagavista to quickly establish eight working integration flows in this customer’s environment. The eight integration flows represent phase one of a multiphase project that will allow data to be disseminated to multiple systems from a single point of contact on the web. Subsequent phases will allow disparate systems to keep common data “in sync” allowing for better customer service and reduce maintenance cost. The pilot was significant in its size and complexity. With over 100 integration points and some 30 different message types, it represented one of the largest integration scenarios to date using this integration tool. The graphic nature of this tool along with its general ease of use allowed developers to build the flows in a matter of weeks and transfer a significant amount of knowledge to the customer, illustrating the importance of selecting the right EAI tools.

Real-time data feed

As an example, a major police department needed a real-time data feed for a reporting system residing on a Windows NT platform, written in Visual Basic with data stored on a SQL Server database. The customer populated the SQL database with data from their core system written in Natural/Adabas and residing on an OS/390 mainframe. The pre-EAI process involved a considerable amount of batch processing, FTP’s and manual processes. An EAI solution was used to solve the customer’s business problem by automating the data transfer process so that the SQL Server tables would be in sync with the Adabas files at all times. The EAI solution is external to the customer’s current applications, so none of their existing applications needed to be modified. This application demonstrates the critical need to base the solution on the business goals.

Earl Holland is Director of Enterprise Integration Solutions at Syntel, Inc. where his responsibilities include both sales and delivery. He has over fifteen years experience in the information technology industry with emphases on leading-edge technology, business process improvement and life-cycle development.

Earl joined Syntel’s Enterprise Solutions Group in May of 1999 as Business Development Manager and was promoted to his current position in March 2000.

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