The ties that bind enterprise applications

After selecting Siebel Systems Inc.’s customer relationship management suite, service provider Infonet Services Corp. set out to determine which of its other business applications should be integrated with the new CRM software. That’s when things got complicated.

Mapping applications and transactions revealed a maze of interconnected programs. Jim deMin likens the process to peeling back layers of an onion, only to expose – tearfully – more layers underneath. “We thought the primary system interfaced with four other systems. We ultimately realized it interfaced with 27,” says deMin, CRM program manager at the network service provider in El Segundo, Calif.

To tie it all together, Infonet looked to enterprise application integration (EAI) middleware. Instead of individually connecting each application to every other application, EAI middleware lets customers write a single interface between each application and the middleware, which then acts as a message broker among applications. EAI middleware vendors include webMethods Inc., Tibco Software Inc., Vitria Technology Inc., SeeBeyond Technology Corp. and Data Junction Inc. Traditionally, EAI vendors have offered proprietary integration software, though increasingly they are adding standard XML and Web services-based functions to stay competitive with start-up service providers, such as Grand Central Networks Inc. and Flamenco Networks Inc., that offer application integration through their Web services networks.

As a project, EAI is often underestimated, but it’s key to the success of today’s enterprise CRM rollouts, experts say. Hooks to customer, product and fulfillment information contained in back-end systems are what fill out an enterprise wide CRM strategy. Integration often comes after the fact for companies that first collect best-of-breed applications and then set out to link them together. But as businesses look to get more out of their existing applications, interest in EAI is growing. Meridien Research Inc. predicts the market for EAI technologies will hit US$12.5 billion by 2006.

Eliminating points

Before its Siebel purchase, Infonet hand-coded links between applications to facilitate data sharing – but such point-to-point integration is messy and time-consuming. It also doesn’t scale well. Using integration middleware from SeeBeyond, Infonet has cut its integration labor from 50 per cent to 15 per cent of the cost of a new software rollout, deMin says. “Middleware has drastically changed how we do business,” he says.

Similarly, Oncology Therapeutics Network (OTN) in San Francisco, is in the process of replacing 52 point-to-point interfaces with integration middleware from Tibco.

OTN provides oncology medical practices with products and services including distribution of cancer drugs. The company deals with dozens of pharmaceutical partners, biotech companies and content providers – which is one reason it made the move to EAI middleware.

“In addition to selling drugs and supplies, we also provide information services … That implies you’re going to have lots and lots of interfaces, lots of integration requirements,” says Sue Dubman, CIO.

For OTN, the Tibco middleware will tie together CRM and e-commerce software from Blue Martini Software Inc. with newly upgraded financial and order management software from Oracle Corp. After linking its internal systems, OTN will begin work to tie partners’ applications to its own through the Tibco middleware.

By replacing dozens of point-to-point interfaces with the middleware, OTN will achieve more real-time data exchange, says Sheeny Grellal, director of OTN’s CRM program. The Tibco middleware also can operate in a persistent delivery mode for guaranteed message delivery.

Many application vendors offer prepackaged integrators to common software programs; however, out-of-the-box Blue Martini-to-Tibco adapters don’t exist commercially. So the OTN team wrote their own, and they did it in just 14 days. “It was relatively easy to convert from Blue Martini data structures to Tibco Rendezvous data structures,” Grellal says. “Using Tibco’s data-mapping feature, we were able to talk to Oracle, real time, with guaranteed delivery.”

Extra assistance

DMC Stratex Networks Inc., of San Jose, took a different tact. Rather than write all the middleware interfaces on its own, the company supplemented its own development staff with CRM integration services from Sierra Atlantic.

Until 1999, DMC Stratex was a Computer Associates International Inc. shop. Integration wasn’t much of an issue until a pair of acquisitions introduced software from Oracle and an obscure U.K. company called Chameleon Software to the mix, says Lee Jones, CIO at the manufacturer of broadband and wireless access gear.

DMC Stratex made the decision to standardize on Oracle’s back-office applications and later added software from Clarify for customer service, Agile for product content management and Siebel for product configuration and sales force automation.

“I literally have best of breed everything,” Jones says. Tying it all together is Vitria’s BusinessWare platform for enterprise application integration.

Although Vitria had the tools the company needed to link its applications, time was short. “We found the big challenge was getting up to speed quickly with Vitria,” Jones says. So DMC Stratex hired Sierra Atlantic Inc. to develop specialized interfaces for the legacy systems – which Sierra Atlantic now sells as prepackaged integration software – while Jones and his team concentrated on converting the old systems.

Today, DMC Stratex develops most of its Vitria application interfaces internally and relies on Sierra Atlantic for complex projects or when time is short.

Internal application support staff at DMC Stratex are responsible for a particular application plus its Vitria interface.

“Since we are best of breed and there is a lot of information interchange between the applications, it’s really good to have someone who is familiar with the technical aspects of that application also be familiar if we have a problem with the interface,” Jones says.

Outside the firewall

Putnam Lovell Securities Inc. in San Francisco is taking a different approach to integration. Rather than using traditional middleware deployed locally, Putnam Lovell is using a Web-based service for application integration, in keeping with the company’s services bent, says CTO Rodric O’Connor.

The financial services company uses Grand Central Communications’ hosted service to link its hosted CRM application, Inc., with BlueMatrix Inc., a software service for creating and managing the distribution of investment research materials.

Before Grand Central, extracting the list of interested and eligible clients from the CRM application and setting up a recipient list for BlueMatrix to distribute new research material was a manual process. Now distribution occurs automatically. “Grand Central is the integration hub between the two products,” O’Connor says. “All three are on the outside of our firewall.”