New Tool Stakes Middle Ground for AS/400

As ERP packages are more frequently deployed on AS/400s, there is growing demand for enterprise application integration (EAI) tools to help glue these systems with other platforms across the organization. While analysts claim the AS/400 community is about two years behind the rest of IT in EAI, new tools on the market are helping these sites catch up. One new EAI solution, dcXchange from iWork Software LLC (Greensboro, N.C.), handles data transfer and data transformation between applications such as SSA's BPCS, J.D. Edwards and SAP running on AS/400, Windows NT and Unix.

The cost to integrate and maintain ERP and other systems "potentially could cost more than an entire IT budget," says Martin Sizemore, product manager for dcXchange. "The ERP people release a new version every year, which have 'touch points' that need to be synchronized with other enterprise applications." This has particularly been an issue with Y2K upgrade efforts, he adds. iWork created dcXchange to alleviate the costly and time-consuming customization work users were forced to do to their business-line applications. The product provides "any-to-any" database conversion using ODBC connections or messaging, such as that available for IBM's DB2, UDB, Microsoft's SQL Server, Informix, Sybase and Oracle. dcXchange also supports database tables, delimited file import and export; AS/400 data queues, TCP/IP and MQSeries messaging queues.

While using TCP/IP and ODBC as a communications protocol between applications and databases is nothing new, analysts see iWork's support of IBM's MQSeries as a shrewd move. While TCP/IP batch transfer and ODBC commonly allow different databases in different operating environments to exchange files, MQSeries provides a link between applications across the enterprise, says Janelle Hill, research director for data integration middleware at Gartner Group Inc. (Stamford, Conn.). "MQSeries talks more application-to-application than TCP/IP and ODBC, and many ERP systems are architected to use it. The fact that dcXchange rides on that is important. MQSeries is available on up to 19 platforms now and it's becoming a standard for message-queuing middleware. The more heterogeneous the environment, the better MQ fits," says Hill.

However, very few applications on the AS/400 currently use MQSeries, so iWork might be a little ahead of its time, Hill adds. Many middleware vendors are focusing on Windows NT and Unix operating environments. Hill calls the AS/400 a "niche market opportunity" at this time. The very nature of the typical AS/400 shop3/4running multiple operating systems3/4should allow iWork to penetrate that market, if not by selling dcXchange to end-users, then by teaming up with ISVs to include the middleware with their business-line applications, she says.

One current iWork partner, Taylor Manufacturing Systems (Norcross, Ga.), is the producer of TESS (Taylor Execution Scheduling Systems), a Windows NT-based factory scheduling and decision support application that lets IT managers plan their workflow on the factory floor. TESS also interfaces with AS/400-based ERP applications such as BPCS. "TESS complements BPCS by providing highly granular computational and algorithmic functions, but there's wide-ranging diversity between the two applications," says David Pleak, product manager at Taylor Manufacturing. "While BPCS is very transactional, TESS is very decision-support oriented. Most BPCS applications are AS/400-based and we are NT-based."

Taylor is using dcXchange at customer sites to help them manage "the changing topology of enterprise applications and our applications," Pleak explains. "Most enterprise application integrations are very brittle, and you almost need to reinvent the wheel every time one part is upgraded. dcXchange provides mapping and messaging to link an AS/400 DB/2 database to a TESS Windows NT database." The middleware synchronizes the data flow between the database environments. For example, a work order from the AS/400 is sent to TESS, which calibrates inventory, human resource requirements and factory-floor schedules to predict delivery time. That data is relayed back to the AS/400. If manufacturing conflicts arise, IT managers are alerted, and can work proactively to ensure that a product schedule is met.

In a separate initiative, iWork has also teamed up with Fleming Systems (Thunder Bay, Ont.) to offer dcXchange with the company's Windows NT-based 4Site, a financial maintenance and management software package.