Dealing with integration

Vowels were flying everywhere at the Vienna Baan World user conference.

Es were pervasive: actions were taken and business was done “at the speed of e,” automatic messaging notifications were dubbed e-pings, and electronic procurement, collaboration and selling software was Christened E-Enterprise.

The letter A, or more accurately Baan’s double A, were also seen with an unexpected frequency as agility lost some of its nimbleness with its transformation to aagility. The double vowel has also started to appear in an international marketing and branding campaign.

But evidence has it that the most important vowel in the Baan scheme of things is I, and for a change it is not the I from Internet, but I as in integration.

“With e-commerce, a blur is created between software companies and consultants,” said Baan chair and CEO Mary Coleman.

These days ERP isn’t just about plain old ERP any more, it is about CRM and supply chain management as well. “You have to have a good way to do technically-assisted selling and a way to do tracking and upselling. Customers are going to expect to get a real-time commitment of when they expect to have delivery, and the only way to do that is to have a link to your front and back ends. Getting the storefront up and running is easy. The rest is hard.”

In order to accomplish this vision of integration, partners, suppliers, producers and vendors must all talk together and using the same language, and while the debate rages on how well and quickly that will actually happen, Baan took what it believes are steps to help the process.

The first was the launch of the Baan Enterprise Solution, even though most of its components won’t be available until Q1 next year. It will comprise update releases of some of its core technologies and new additions to help fill out the ERP/CRM/SCM blueprint, and will be the first Baan offering to benefit from the four-layer integration (data, application, business process and business community) of the Baan OpenWorld Integration Framework, which is scheduled for release in Q2 2000.

With these two offerings Baan says it has solved point-to-point integration and semantic reconciliation issues common to ERP and other enterprise-level software implementations, because it has built its products upon a structure founded on commonly used technologies like XML, MQSeries, MSMQ and BOIs (Business Object Interfaces).

But even that foundation isn’t enough to support an entire ERP/CRM/SCM-business-solution theory, claim Baan World attendees and participants.

Douglas W. Lynn, program director, open computing and server strategies at the Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said claiming to use XML is not enough to garner understanding.

“Saying that you and I are using XML is like saying we have agreed to use the same consonant and vowel set, but you might be speaking English and I might be speaking French, and I might be putting funny accents over the letters,” Lynn explained.

He said there is nothing inherent in XML that ensures two companies are looking at the same data or treating it in an identical fashion.

Lynn’s other concern is when declaring the supply chain is integrated there still needs to be Baan (or another specific ERP vendor’s software) on the business partners’ systems in order to make the communications meaningful and even permissible.

Mike May, vice-president of IT at Teknion Furniture Systems Ltd. in Downsview, Ont., said this procedure isn’t ideal or even a fully open solution, but he’ll happily do business this way.

“That is why a concept like Microsoft’s BizTalk is such an important technology. It will allow us to do things like agree upon what a purchase order format is. And for a messaging server, I think the standard will become the Java Messaging Server (JMS), but until that happens I still think asking you the supplier to install a Baan messaging client is not an obscene request.”

Even Baan officials agree that a standard business communications format is required — standards that go beyond the technology guidelines that exist today.

“We can take a step approach to this,” said Nathan Pieri, Baan’s director of product management, Enterprise Solution Suite. “Right now things work best Baan to Baan, but that’s because everybody else out there is proprietary. The next level of benefit is for customers who have non-Baan systems. That’s why we’re supporting BizTalk. We want to work with everybody else.”