Application integration made easy?

For many IT executives, integrating enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management applications is akin to getting a root canal – expensive and painful.

A handful of ERP and CRM vendors are casting off proprietary technologies in favor of industry standards to ease the sting of application integration.

Behind the effort are users who want to see application integration made easier. AMR Research Inc. reports that “a universal request” from CIOs who attended the research firm’s advisory council was for packaged application software vendors to embrace industry standards for integration and remove dependencies on proprietary APIs.

Vendors including J.D. Edwards & Co., Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc., SAP AG and Siebel Systems Inc. are adding support to their suites for emerging standard technology, including Simple Object Access Protocol, a transport mechanism for exchanging XML-based data; Web Services Description Language, which describes services and how they should be used; and Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition Connector Architecture (JCA), which provides a mechanism for storing and retrieving data from different J2EE systems.

In addition, some ERP and CRM vendors are building messaging brokers into their suites to handle the transfer of data among disparate applications – a task that traditionally is the domain of dedicated enterprise application integration vendors, such as webMethods, Tibco Software and Vitria.

A tradition of difficulty

Traditionally, ERP and CRM vendors provide an API to their software and leave the integration work to customers, who might write custom code, hire a systems integrator or invest in integration middleware to make the necessary application connections. Working with APIs often requires manual coding, and they do not provide for a scalable integration method.

In addition, application integration carries a hefty price tag. With CRM, implementation costs two to five times as much as the software, and application integration accounts for 30 percent to 50 percent of implementation costs, says Erin Kinikin, vice president at Giga Information Group. “These are multimillion dollar projects every time you add a new software solution to the mix,” she says.

For this reason, some users do all they can to keep from adding new vendors, and new application integration challenges, to their software infrastructure.

Waters Corp. CIO Paul Newton is reluctant to add software from another vendor to his Milford, Mass., company’s SAP-centric infrastructure. Waters, which makes laboratory instrumentation and software, runs SAP in its back office and for product life-cycle management and CRM. “We only go outside the SAP box when we have to, if there’s a compelling business reason,” he says.

The primary reason for Newton’s loyalty is because SAP assumes much of the burden of integrating its modules, he says. With a best-of-breed collection of software from multiple vendors, the effort and cost required to achieve tight integration is prohibitive, he says.

The idea of tight integration is key to Newton’s point. “There’s loose integration with a manual interface, and there’s tight integration where applications share the same data. Then there’s lots of gray in between,” he says.

A manual interface through a proprietary API provides a means for one application to make requests of another application and pull in data. But when an application pulls in data through an API and duplicates that data in its own repository, there are two instances of the data that need to be kept in sync to maintain its quality. Conversely, when applications share the same resources, data doesn’t have to be duplicated in application-specific repositories, and information and processes can be tied together.

The integration issue

To help reduce the custom coding required to link software from multiple vendors, ERP and CRM vendors are paying more attention to standards-based application integration.

“Users are desperate because the benefits of their applications depend on those applications being connected to the right parts of their business,” Kinikin says. “Users will be ecstatic to think that somebody who understands their application problems is going to step in and get involved.”

For its part, Siebel is tackling integration through a combination of its own development efforts and partnerships. The company last month unveiled plans for its Universal Application Network product, which is built around a set of 200 industry-specific “business processes” that Siebel is creating.

Instead of being tied to a single application and based on proprietary technology, these prepackaged software sequences engage multiple applications to access data needed to complete common business functions. For example, a business process might cover creating a new customer record or advancing a sales transaction from the quote stage to order placement.

Rather than develop its own integration broker, Siebel recruited middleware vendors IBM, SeeBeyond, Tibco, Vitria and webMethods to supply the underlying integration platform for Universal Application Network. The system is based on standards such as XML and Web Services Flow Language.

Siebel’s integration strategy is a step in the right direction, says Ned Liddell, vice president of CRM at TMP Worldwide, the parent company of online careers firm Today, Monster links its Siebel applications with Oracle Financials, the Web site and an internal data warehouse using a variety of tools, including Microsoft SQL Server’s Data Transformation Services tools for importing and exporting data.

Liddell knows his application integration requirements will only grow bigger. “Siebel’s XML option will make it easier for us to integrate other systems and will give us more control,” he says. “We’re doing [integration] already, but have had to do more work ourselves.”

The core ERP vendors, too, are addressing integration. But they have taken a different tack from Siebel’s, opting to build their own integration brokers.

SAP is readying an integration broker, due out this fall, that will be built into a J2EE-based application server the company is developing. The J2EE server will be a key part of SAP’s new Exchange Infrastructure architecture, which was announced last year.

Oracle, too, is building integration tools into its application server. Built into its Oracle9iAS is InterConnect, a messaging-based integration framework. Prebuilt application adapters, designed to work with InterConnect, are available for third-party software from companies such as SAP, Siebel and PeopleSoft. In addition, Oracle is working on application adapters based on the emerging JCA standard. The advantage of JCA-compliant adapters is that they will work with other vendors’ messaging infrastructures.

PeopleSoft in its latest upgrade – PeopleSoft 8.4, released in March – included homegrown messaging middleware called PeopleSoft Integration Broker. The middleware acts as a hub for connecting PeopleSoft applications to legacy systems and trading partners’ systems, reconciling different applications with different data models, the company says.

J.D. Edwards has its eXtended Process Integration (XPI) engine, which is based on webMethods technology and built into the company’s OneWorld Xe suite of ERP applications. The XPI message broker handles moving transactions and customer information among J.D. Edwards and third-party vendors’ applications, the company says.

This strategy of offering it all – ERP and CRM applications bundled with a message broker for third-party application integration – could mean more to midsize companies, which would be thrilled to a have a single vendor source, Kinikin says.

FWMurphy, a privately held electronics parts distributor, agrees. The Tulsa, Okla., company uses J.D. Edwards ERP software and is rolling out J.D. Edwards’ CRM products. The chore of developing and maintaining integration points was a key factor in the company’s decision to go with J.D. Edwards for CRM, says Mike Myers, vice president of operations at FWMurphy.

“I can build an integration point between any applications. But the first time I do an upgrade, I have to worry about preserving those hooks and [keeping track of] what’s changed. That can be a real mess,” he says.