"A" Through "ERP": Creating the E-Biz-Enabled Enterprise
As the e-business "big bang" continues to expand, creating a new business universe, it is becoming increasingly clear that the line between a business and its technology is disappearing. In the most effective e-businesses, the technology and the business are one. Companies around the globe now find themselves faced with seemingly contradictory imperatives; transform themselves into e-businesses and leverage their existing technology assets (including legacy systems, departmental systems and recently deployed ERP systems).
This challenge – creating the e-business-enabled enterprise – is a primary driver behind the exploding enterprise application integration (EAI) market. One estimate predicts that this market will grow from $40 billion in 1997 to $60 billion in 2001. With post-Y2K projects completed, that number could easily climb higher.
Companies know that to succeed in today’s global economy, they must simplify and automate their operations and extend access to previously internal systems to customers, partners and suppliers. To achieve and maintain a competitive edge, they must reduce costs, increase productivity, tighten supply chains and improve the overall customer experience. Many organizations find themselves faced with the added challenge of integrating applications from other companies, as the result of mergers or acquisitions. Only by integrating the tangle of disparate applications across their extended enterprises can they position themselves for e-business success.
What makes these challenges even more daunting is that organizations cannot simply stop what they’re doing in order to integrate and transform their systems. They must do it on the fly, something akin to changing a jet engine while the plane is in flight. All of this leads IT managers to the obvious question: "How are we going to do this?"
How We Got Here
Decades worth of application development and technology evolution have led organizations to this critical juncture. Over the past dozen or so years in particular, as single-vendor, monolithic solutions fell out of favor, most organizations adopted a best-of-breed approach to application development. It made perfect sense at the time. In hindsight, however, they may want to kick themselves for creating the resulting complex, heterogeneous, dis-integrated enterprises. Now, they must find ways to simplify and integrate their enterprises from browser to back end, from suppliers to customers, if they are to deliver the kind of customer service-based differentiation required to gain a competitive edge.
Organizations initially attacked the enterprise integration problem by developing point-to-point solutions – literally writing custom code to wire applications together one by one. This approach worked reasonably well when there were just a few applications to be integrated. However, in the typical large enterprise, there are many applications that need to be integrated. In those environments, this Band-Aid approach to EAI is time-consuming and enormously expensive. Moreover, it actually increases the complexity of the enterprise, littering it with millions of lines of spaghetti code that must be maintained and extended to each new application.
While early approaches to enterprise integration focused on moving or replicating data between disparate databases, increasingly EAI efforts and tools address integration at the process level. This has fueled the emergence of new classes of products, most notably message-oriented middleware (MOM) products like IBM’s MQSeries and TIBCO’s TIB/Rendezvous, process integration products like CrossWorlds, and business process automation products like Vitria BusinessWare.
There is no shortage of solutions. But, which solution is right for your enterprise? And just where should you begin the integration process?
"A" Is for Architecture
Whatever approach you ultimately select, it should be based on an underlying architecture that allows you to efficiently integrate your existing applications and add new applications to the fold as your organization continues to grow and evolve. There should also be a clear understanding across your organization that an IT architecture is not just some pesky technical detail. In the world of e-business, it is absolutely strategic. This must be understood and endorsed at all levels of the organization, starting at the very top.
To create an e-business-enabled enterprise, you need an underlying architecture that comprises a number of key characteristics.
Scalability. The architecture must be able to handle hundreds of thousands – even millions – of users because e-business success can mean a doubling of traffic overnight.
Robustness and Reliability. The application architecture must provide a wide range of services, and it must do so with 24x7 availability. Online users and customers have little patience for technical difficulties, especially when other options are just a click away.
Universal Access. Your architecture should allow users to access services from anywhere at any time. Increasingly, this access is provided by Web-browsers, eliminating the need to distribute and support disparate desktop client software.
Location Transparency. Users should not have to know the location of a particular resource to access it. All resources should appear to be local.
Single Log-In Authentication. Users should be able to access any resources they are authorized to use with a single log-in. This greatly simplifies access and maximizes user productivity, while ensuring systems security.
High-Bandwidth Connectivity. The architectural infrastructure should enhance user productivity by providing ample bandwidth across the extended enterprise, enabling users to conduct business in realtime.
Openness. A fully integrated enterprise is the key to e-business success. Many of the EAI challenges now facing organizations are the result of closed, proprietary systems and development. The Internet-driven e-conomy demands openness and a standards-based architecture.
ERP: A Place to Start
At its heart, EAI is about leveraging existing technology investments. It’s about enhancing them in order to allow the organization to change or update its business model and processes to achieve and maintain a competitive edge.
Having already spent tens of millions on ERP systems to automate their business processes, organizations now find they need to integrate these systems with other enterprise systems to achieve the maximum ROI. At the same time, major ERP systems are evolving to provide more value-added, e-business functionality.
It’s not surprising, then, to find many organizations looking for ways to enhance their ERP systems to enable them to serve as more than just applications. They’re now looking to them to serve as the architectural foundations for their new e-business enterprises.
The major ERP vendors clearly want to be the heart and soul of their customers’ business and computing infrastructures. They envision enterprise architectures in which their ERP applications are at the center of the IT universe. In this vision, all other business systems and legacy applications connect to and are integrated through this ERP hub. The ERP system becomes a business-services framework, a central information repository and a data-distribution facility.
To help bring this vision to fruition, ERP vendors have rushed to add application development hooks to their tools. SAP, for example, has published more than 1,000 business APIs (BAPIs) for R/3. The company offers interchange documents (IDOCs), standard file formats for common information exchanges. It also offers connectors embedded in tools, such as Microsoft’s Visual Studio and IBM’s Visual Age which make it easier to connect a Visual Basic application, for example, with R/3.
Other ERP vendors are also adding functionality to make it easier for organizations to use their ERP systems as the focal point for EAI. PeopleSoft provides PeopleTools, for customization and integration, while Baan is trying to convert to a business-object interface to which developers can write when creating code.
Increasingly, ERP suites are evolving beyond their original functions to become platforms for application development and integration. This ERP-focused approach to EAI is the strongest selling point for many companies. But, it’s not an approach without its share of shortcomings and challenges.
Tools That Can Help
It may be a long time before the major ERP vendors can evolve their products into the application development and integration platforms they envision. In the meantime, there are other tools you can buy to move you closer to an e-business- enabled enterprise built around your ERP system. These include:
Data Access Middleware. Such as Arasqribe for R3 from Sqribe Technologies and ActaWorks from Acta. These allow developers to easily find and extract SQL data from SAP R/3 or other ERP solutions, and to produce custom-format reports.
Messaging Middleware. Such as IBM MQSeries and Tibco TIB/ Rendezvous. These allow programmers to write applications that asynchronously exchange messages with ERP packages. Programmers, however, will still need to write or buy a module to handle messages when they arrive.
Object-Oriented Middleware. Such as Orbix from Iona and Inprise’s VisiBroker. These enable developers to create applications consisting of objects based on standard object models that interact with the ERP solution. They will usually involve an object bridge.
Packaged ERP Integration Applications. Third-party tools, such as CrossWorlds Connect for R3 and NEON e-Biz Integrator and Adapters, enable integration at a high level by combining messaging and custom, application-specific adapters accessed through an easy-to-use, coding-free, front-end application.
Vendor-Supplied Tools. Utilities supplied by ERP vendors let users extend and customize the ERP application using APIs or programming languages. These require some programming and ERP application expertise.
Think and Act Strategically
Achieving a competitive edge in today’s economy is not about products or advertising or tenacious salespeople – it’s about having the right business model. And increasingly, IT is at the heart of that business model. That means organizations must think more strategically about IT, and they must make critical choices that move them toward a strategic IT framework – a strategic framework that provides them the agility they need to achieve and sustain a competitive advantage.
About the Author: Jonathan A. Brassington is the Vice President of Management Consutling for Broadreach Consulting Inc. (Philadelphia). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.