Users make application integration an IT priority

For some large companies, the need to tie together incompatible systems has grown to the point that the main mission of their IT departments is changing from application development to integration.

Users such as Corporate Express Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc. and Union Pacific Corp. said they no longer have any choice about braving the rigors of building an enterprise application integration (EAI) infrastructure. EAI tools still have a reputation of being hard to use, but IT managers at the three companies said trying to cope with “application spaghetti” is worse.

“We really need to make integration a central part of every IT initiative,” said Marty Malley, director of information systems at Omaha-based Union Pacific. For example, he said, the railroad has to find a way to deliver real-time pricing information from its systems to freight customers in the oil and gas industries.

“That price data touches many internal systems, and now we’ve got to find a way to tie it all together,” Malley said. In November, Union Pacific began working with EAI tools developed by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tibco Software Inc.

Once in place, the integration framework will also be used to help migrate components of the railroad’s core transportation control system off of its mainframes. Malley said the railroad hasn’t yet set a full road map for the EAI work. He declined to comment on the expected cost.

Monty Sooter, CIO at Corporate Express, said EAI technology would play a role in all four of the major IT projects that the Broomfield, Colo.-based distributor of office supplies plans this year. “We made a business decision that the [integration] infrastructure has to be correct,” Sooter said. “If it’s not, we’re not going to be able to move forward.”

In a project that began 18 months ago, Corporate Express initially used EAI tools developed by Fairfax, Va.-based webMethods Inc. to integrate its systems with business-to-business applications at 120 large customers.

Now, Sooter said, the company plans to use the tools in rollouts of i2 Technologies Inc.’s e-procurement and warehouse management applications and projects aimed at improving information feeds to suppliers and developing an online system for paying its sales force. The EAI layer will funnel data among various databases and front-end system interfaces, he said.

Tyler McDaniel, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc. in Framingham, Mass., said early versions of EAI tools were difficult to use. But improved business object, repository and graphical user interface capabilities have lessened their arcane nature, he said.

However, EAI projects can still be long and hard. For example, Best Buy plans to use webMethods’ tools to patch its electronic data interchange (EDI) trading partners into a new Windows 2000 server backbone that will run its inventory and financial systems.

The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based electronics retailer has such a heavy volume of EDI transactions that it’s running short of the nightly downtime needed to complete its batch processing, said Patricia Vessey, e-business communications manager at Best Buy.

The webMethods tools will translate data between various systems for real-time transaction processing of purchase orders and invoices, Vessey said. She estimated that it would take two years to do the required data-conversion work.