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CIO Speak: EAI
EAI: Bridging the incompatibility gap

Does the left hand know what the right is doing? This is a dilemma that many enterprises are faced with when confronted by a host of disparate applications that speak different languages. by Vishvanathan R

Enterprises today are stacked with myriad systems to handle the automation needs of modern day business. Coupled with these challenges, the emergence of eCommerce has triggered fundamental changes in the way business transactions are conducted. The Internet backbone has become more ubiquitous driving the need for seamless interactions of enterprises with employees, customers, vendors and partners. The unabated entry of packaged applications on the enterprise scene and their rapid adoption exacerbates the need for seamless integration.

So how does an enterprise cope with a mammoth challenge such as this? Today the missing links have started popping up—in the form of Enterprise Application Integration or EAI solutions.

Enterprise Application Integration comes into play when organizations start investing in their fourth or fifth enterprise application. With just two or three applications in place, most enterprises would resort to homegrown point-to-point integration solutions. As the number of applications and interactions increase, the mesh of point-to-point integration solutions becomes unmanageable and too complex. EAI middleware provides a fabric through which applications can be loosely coupled to deliver a seamless integration. This middleware solution will ease the pain of incorporating a new application into the enterprise. Such integration enables enterprises to enhance productivity and relationships not only within the business entity but also to customers and strategic business partners.

The growth of EAI
Enterprise applications, from as early as the 1960s through the late 1970s, were simple in design and functionality, developed largely to perform repetitive tasks. There was little thought given to the need for integration of corporate data. The primary objective was to automate most of the manual chores, using Information Technology. By the 1980s, several corporations were beginning to understand the value and necessity for application integration.

As ERP applications became more prevalent in the 1990s, there was a need for corporations to be able to leverage the base of existing applications and data within the ERP system. The answer came in the form of EAI. The drivers for the growth of EAI in the past few years include the unabated entry of new breed of packaged applications and their adoption by enterprises, need for supply chain management/business-to-business (B2B) integration, need for streamlined business processes, Web application integration, and overall technology advances within EAI development.

The need to integrate
The need for integrating applications within an enterprise and between enterprises is mainly driven by the
following factors:

  • With the Internet becoming a part and parcel of business, integrating legacy systems and Web enabling them has become an indispensable exercise. Furthermore, EAI can help you leverage the potential of e-business to the optimum.
  • With mergers & acquisitions dominating business trends, integrating systems of the new company with those of the old becomes crucial. EAI offers the most reliable bridge between the systems of two merging enterprises.
  • On the management front, the highly competitive market conditions have made it imperative that managers are armed with the information required to make decisions and respond quickly. There is a mounting requirement for a dashboard like application that integrates all departments and gives an integrated picture for business needs. This is possible through an EAI framework. EAI enables easy monitoring of enterprise functions as it gives a holistic view of enterprise system functioning.

Understanding the implementation process
An EAI implementation spans every level of an enterprise system—its architecture, hardware, software and processes. It involves integration at the following levels:

Business Process Integration (BPI) When integrating business processes, a corporation must define, enable and manage the processes for the exchange of enterprise information among diverse business systems. Elements here include process management, process modeling, and workflow, which involve the combination of tasks, procedures, organizations, required input and output information, and tools needed for each step in a business process.

Application Integration At this level of integration, the goal is to bring data or a function from one application together with that of another application so that together they provide near real-time integration. Application Integration is used for B2B integration, implementing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems that are integrated with a company's backend applications, Web integration, and building websites that leverage multiple business systems. Customized integration development may also be necessary, particularly when integrating a legacy application with a newly implemented ERP application.

Data Integration In order for both Application Integration and Business Process Integration to succeed, the integration of data and database systems must be tackled. Prior to integration, data must be identified (where it is located), cataloged, and a metadata model must be built (a master guide for various data stores). Once these three steps are accomplished, data can then be shared/distributed across database systems.

Integration Standards In order to achieve full data Integration, standard formats for the data must be selected. Integration Standards are those that promote the sharing and distribution of information and business data—standards that are at the core of Enterprise Application Integration. These include COM+/DCOM, CORBA, EDI, JavaRMI, and XML.

Platform Integration To complete the system integration, the underlying architecture, software and hardware, the separate needs of the heterogeneous network must be integrated. Platform Integration deals with the processes and tools that are required to allow these systems to communicate, both optimally and securely, so data can be passed through different applications without difficulty.

Areas to watch
When an enterprise embarks on an EAI project, one needs to watch the following areas:

  • Success in an EAI endeavor depends a great deal on clear articulation of business goals. The first move is to crystallize business goals and then derive the goals for EAI.
  • As EAI is a strategic initiative, it will require buy-in from the top management. There should be a team in place, which can work through the various departments, employees, partners and customers to ensure a smooth implementation of EAI solutions.
  • The technology choices have to be made after a great deal of consultation and deliberation with various technical teams of the enterprise and the EAI Technology Provider.
  • Collaboration with employees, partners and customers is another critical area to watch out for. This will drive the need for adoption of industry standards for eCommerce such as EDI, RosettaNet, BizTalk, ebXML, etc.
  • Choice of the solution Implementation Partner is the next critical step. Look for partners who appreciate your business goals. Secondly look for experience—both with implementing EAI as well as domain expertise of your particular industry. The latter will help your partner understand your business dynamics and goals better.

EAI is emerging as a strategic tool that would help businesses to graduate to the new economy. Clearly, the essence of EAI is something we've been trying to achieve for years. With the need for a seamless interaction among enterprise applications, collaboration with customers, partners, employees growing at a rapid pace, EAI can no longer be put on the back burner. It offers the perfect handshake for seamless integration of a 'virtual enterprise' and the resultant insight and productivity gains that it brings.

 
     
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