Enterprise apps extend their reach

Trumpeting their support for XML and Web services standards, leading enterprise application vendors spoke at great lengths in 2003 about playing well with others. In the end, however, they proffered their own way of doing things. IT watched as IBM Corp.’s WebSphere Integration WorkBench, Microsoft Corp.’s BizTalk, SAP AG’s NetWeaver, and Siebel Systems Inc.’s UAN (Universal Application Network) went head-to-head-to-head-to-head, as each vendor offers its own custom integration solution.

As Cap Gemini Ernst & Young CTO John Parkinson put it, “Perhaps ’03 will be remembered best as the year of the rebirth of proprietary answers amidst the rhetoric of Web services making everything connect.”

Unlike traditional integration platforms, Siebel’s UAN is centred on business processes, making it, in some ways, the most interesting of the lot. Rather than being limited by domain-specific application boundaries, UAN promises to integrate even those points in a business process that require human interaction.

Application integration and business process management (BPM) aside, if there was any one key technology theme to enterprise apps in 2003, it was managing data. There is no official acronym as yet, but SAP calls it Master Data Management. The idea is to leverage key data to create master records that will let companies do a lot more with the data they already have. Among the promised benefits are higher-quality analytics and data consistency across systems, applications, and locations.

Siebel’s UAN is taking a similar approach, with the idea that within UAN resides a master customer record, separate from any single application but shared by all. You can expect the master data concept to fuel even more vendor activity in 2004. According to Joshua Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting, “solutions specific to master data management will emerge as a separate application class.”

Another interesting trend is developing in the sometimes dull world of contract management.

Traditionally, contract management has been treated as a mere subcategory of document management, but companies such as Determine, Edge Dynamics, Encover, and Model N are pulling contract management into the limelight, linking the terms and conditions of the contract with SLAs and putting it all into a piece of software. The result gives managers a way to watch everything that is going on in the service environment and to compare performance against the SLA.

Besides ushering in these innovations, 2003 was about recognizing the value of existing technology. The dramatic focus on reducing IT costs has pushed companies to rethink how they deliver services. As a result, both offshore and hosted services have gained a foothold in the enterprise.

Hosted solutions got a boost from IBM’s marketing push for “on demand” technology, Siebel’s launch of CRM OnDemand (with partner IBM), and the continued success of Salesforce.com. Hosted apps should find still greater acceptance in the enterprise in the coming year.

Finally, a technology that may give IT more, not less, to control and manage is radio frequency ID (RFID). With companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. decreeing that all its suppliers must incorporate RFID tags on their cartons and palettes, and The Gillette Co. using RFID all the way down to the item level, the manufacturing of RFID tags is reaching a scale that will make the technology affordable to smaller companies.

For RFID to succeed, the RFID industry must standardize the device technology, and enterprise software vendors must show how RFID data can be folded into warehouse and supply-chain management (SCM) systems. We should see these developments in 2004, but we may have to wait until 2005 for the real headaches to begin. RFID is an entirely new infrastructure, and the problems associated with it are going to be hairier and scarier than dealing with the mobile devices IT staffs are used to managing today.

“It’s not like upgrading software. You can’t just walk up to a server and do it. This is something you may have wired into your warehouses, trucks, loading docks, your plant, and every object that moves,” warns Ben Gaucherin, CTO of Sapient.

Regardless of what happens to RFID, master data integration, or application integration platforms, one thing is certain: The battle of the titans in enterprise apps will continue in 2004. It’s as basic as Business 101. He who owns the platform owns the core reference data, and he who owns the core reference data owns the enterprise, from content management to SCM, from ERP to CRM.

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