The faster a business responds to customer needs, the greater its chances for success. This kind of real-time responsiveness means that decision-makers must have instant access to accurate information and the ability to make immediate changes to business processes in response.
One way of getting this kind of accessibility and responsiveness is through enterprise application integration. EAI enables multiple applications within an organization to share information and share the functionality to automate business processes. What’s more, EAI enables islands of automation to be integrated without the need to replace existing legacy systems that are performing satisfactorily.
To accomplish this, an EAI architecture needs to incorporate application-to-application adapters, business rules, data transformation technologies and workflow management. In its most mature form, EAI enables subject-matter experts rather than programmers to quickly and efficiently change business processes.
The following steps provide a road map for getting from A to Z.
1. Let operations drive the implementation
One of the primary problems with many early ERP implementations was that top management and information technology drove the project with relatively little input from operating management. Frequently, the result was that mission-critical legacy applications were neglected in the rush to adopt the newest technological solution. If EAI is to overcome this problem, the various divisions and departments within the organization must play leading roles. The idea is to ensure that the architecture of the EAI solution gives primary weight to the needs of the operating arms of the organization.
The need for EAI arises from the inability of many ERP solutions to provide a complete functional replacement for legacy systems. Companies that attempted that approach largely determined that the cost and time involved in totally replacing legacy systems was prohibitive. Instead, most companies have recognized that for the foreseeable future, ERP systems will co-exist with legacy systems, not to mention new e-business applications.
The emerging technology of EAI provides a robust structure to preserve the functionality of the legacy systems while addressing critical connectivity and communications needs with leading-edge technology.
When operations drive the EAI implementation, the result can be the integration of islands of automation that have risen throughout most large organizations, resulting in significant improvements in business efficiency and closer communications with customers, suppliers and partners. Later down the road, operations will also play a key role in the steering committee that has the mission of reviewing and guiding the project to ensure it stays aligned to the business goals.
2. Analyze your IT infrastructure
As companies move into the Internet economy, the need for integrating islands of automation has become essential. The first step in accomplishing this is mastering your application portfolio by determining what systems exist within the organization, what functions they are capable of performing, what applications they communicate with, and how they fit into your long-term e-business strategy.
In many cases you will probably discover that these applications are doing a good job of performing a critical function, yet are unable to communicate effectively with other key parts of your organization, thereby wasting time and resulting in poor decisions because information is not available. The existence of applications such as this argues for the implementation of an EAI strategy, the thrust of which is to integrate the application logic that implements business processes within the enterprise. These are usually the same business processes that partners and customers will be interacting with over the Web.
3. Establish your business goals
Far too much EAI activity today is being driven by technology rather than business objectives. The recommended approach is to first develop a macro-level business strategy that provides a road map for adapting a business to the era of e-business. Just like developing a business strategy for the old economy, an EAI strategy should start by considering a business’ current position in the market including strengths and weaknesses, products and distribution channels, the challenge posed by competition, new opportunities in the market, etc. But at the same time, a business needs to consider the opportunities and challenges posed by the ability to integrate existing applications both to each other and to the Internet. Interacting directly with customers to streamline distribution channels would be an example of the latter.
The next step is mapping a path to implement that strategy, while putting the primary emphasis on delivering a positive experience to customers, channel partners and others with whom you interact.
For example, several years ago Federal Express set out to provide its customers with the location and status of any of the millions of packages it delivers every day. It provided these capabilities by integrating legacy systems and developing wireless devices to scan packages usually 5 to 7 times between pickup and delivery, and to automatically transmit updates to the nearest regional center. This strategy dramatically improved the level of customer service the firm is able to provide.
4. Establish your
An enormous amount of time and money is invested in the systems that run your business. Replacing these systems with parallel systems designed to interface with other parts of the organization and e-business systems probably doesn’t make good business sense in many cases. This creates the need to develop an architecture that can communicate with and extend existing systems by integrating them with new packaged and custom applications that service your supply chain, channel network and customers.
The EAI architecture should, first of all, address the issue of communicating with the disparate applications in the organization. Secondly, it should deal with converting data structures into a common format and, third, it must create business processes that link the integrated applications.
Consider the situation of a firm that has problems communicating with customers and wants to implement a leading-edge customer relationship management system. Without provisions for interfacing with back-office systems, connectivity will require multiple manual steps, re-sulting in information that will often be incomplete and out of date. EAI archi-tecture can address these issues by integrating the existing ordering and inventory systems with the new CRM system, eliminating manual processing. When the CRM system is executed, it calls each of the integrated applications in a sequence that corresponds to the flow of the business process. This will make it possible for the CRM to automatically initiate an order and pass customer demographics and information to the ERP system, which can then initiate the manufacturing process using existing methods.
5. Evaluate and select EAI tools
An early approach to EAI was to write hard-coded point-to-point interfaces that allow the business logic in one application to communicate with other applications. The problem with this approach is that it requires existing applications to be modified, which can introduce bugs. It also creates a considerable amount of maintenance work.
This approach has been largely superceded by a new generation of software that integrates both data and business processes among a wide range of different applications, from custom mainframe applications to the latest packaged e-business solutions. These newer generation products cut IT costs by creating a modular, scalable, flexible integration environment, and by providing the ability to make transformation and routing changes through a high-level language or GUI interface.
Because these new tools add an independent, non-invasive layer, nothing has to be torn apart while the integration solution is developed. Companies can integrate ERP systems with legacy ap-plications, then easily incorporate state-of-the art e-business applications. Mainframe and other legacy systems that are already running efficiently can continue to shoulder their part of the workload while connecting seamlessly to newer Web-based solutions.
Using an integration-broker archi-tecture approach can eliminate the seemingly endless number of application interfaces imposed by point-to-point integration schemes. Instead of an interface between each application – 56 interfaces if you have 8 applications – only a single interface is needed between each application and the integrator.
The technological requirements for an EAI implementation are by necessity quite strict. With data transformations, business rules and workflow logic that integrates many mission-critical applications into a single platform, the EAI solution must provide continuous availability, scalability and iron-clad security. The key to success of the EAI solution is in its ability to reuse or preserve critical business functionality and to make the integration scheme transparent to its user community.
6. Developing the
The first step in developing EAI is initiating communications among all the disparate applications that typically have been written in a variety of environments and were never designed to communicate with one another. Most EAI infrastructures are based either upon a message or an application integration platform.
The second step is harmonizing the different data structures used by these applications. Products that automatically transform data into normalized structures can speed this process.
The third step is coordinating the flow of information among the dif-ferent applications. Business rules and workflow play a critical role in this process. An example of a business rule might be: “If a customer places an order of $100 or more from the Web site, shipping is free.” Should this policy be modified, a central integrator makes it possible to make the change in only one spot, the integrator’s core, rather than in several individual applications.
The workflow of a new service order taken by a telecommunications call center might be: 1) transfer the customer ID from the CRM system to the service system; 2) Query the service system to verify that the requested service is available in the customer’s area; 3) If the service is available, then place the order in the provisioning system and enter the customer into the billing system; 4) Send the scheduling and cost information from the provisioning system back to the CRM.
7. Pick the right outsourcing partners
Many medium and large companies outsource some or all of their EAI development and implementation work to avoid the cost and difficulty of locating and retaining skilled IT staff. Most EAI applications fit the main criterion for a good outsourcing project: a large project that has been defined to the point that it does not require day-to-day interaction between business and development teams.
There have been many cases where an outsourcing team is able to make dramatic improvements in a new or existing EAI application. Typically these improvements do not necessarily stem from an increased level of skill on the part of the outsourcing team but rather flow from the nature of outsourcing. The out-sourcing team brings fresh ideas and perspective to their assignment and is often able to bring to bear methods and solutions that they have developed on previous assignments.
The outsourcing team also does not have to deal with manpower shortages and conflicting priorities faced by internal teams. The outsourcing team may also be able to leverage staff members in other countries.
Look for an organization that provides depth of experience in each area of your IT infrastructure involved in the integration, including both leading-edge e-business and legacy host systems. With the right organizational focus, clear business goals, cutting-edge EAI tools and knowledgeable partners, your integration effort can exceed the expectations of your internal and external customers.
Earl Holland is Director of Business Development for Syntel Inc., Troy, Michigan, a company that provides application management services to enable customers to better manage their IT environments, improve time to market, and better utilize their internal technical teams. The company’s Web address is www.syntelinc.com