In search of a silver bullet

By Mitch Barnett

Most CIOs agree that they already have a sufficient number of applications. What they need is the ability to get more out of those applications through process and data integration. That’s where the concept of Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) comes in. EAI is the ability to integrate data, business processes, and applications, regardless of what they are or how they exist.

The problem plaguing EAI is how to get started on integration when there are so many variables within the organization. These variables include disparate technologies, a multitude of processes, and complex inter-departmental politics. By the time a long-term strategic decision is made, many business drivers have changed and re-evaluation is required. The process never ends.

The irony is that all EAI technologies claim to be able to integrate all business processes.

If this is true, why not just pick one and get started with the first two or three primary applications? Should your corporate or technology strategies change along the way (and they probably will), you’ll have fewer applications to integrate as the process evolves. After all, you can watch the process evolve forever, or jump in and “just do it”.

Getting started

Perhaps a good place to start would be by banning the acronym “EAI” from your IT vocabulary.

EAI is a seriously misunderstood concept, evidenced by the number of failed EAI strategies and implementations over the last three years. One of the underlying causes of these failures is not understanding the term EAI itself.

Mention the term EAI to any business person and in many cases they will have no idea what you are talking about. The most common question they come back with is, “How is this going to help my business?”

Mention the term EAI to a group of IT people and you will most likely get a different definition from each person, usually stating a technology preference in the process.

Most EAI strategies fail for the following reasons:

1. The basic “What business problem(s) are we trying to solve?” question gets lost.

2. An “enterprise” application integration strategy involves so many stakeholders that organizations get bogged down in meetings. In some cases, meetings may continue for over two years. The money and effort spent on two years of meetings could have gone directly towards solving actual business problems today.

3. Organizations go wild on EAI technology selection, spending millions of dollars assessing which technology is most suitable for their organization. Again, spending the dollars and effort on directly solving actual business problems today should be the goal.

What is Enterprise Application Integration?

When considering the above question, it is useful to strike through Enterprise Application and explore the question, “What is Integration?” Most people understand the concept of integration, whether it is used in a business or an IT context.

From a business perspective, common objectives show the need for integrating business processes so that our time to revenue is faster, we are more competitive, we can control our contractual obligations, we can offer better service to our customers and stakeholders, and we can control our end-to-end business processes.

From an IT perspective, there is need to integrate applications and data (regardless of platform, application, programming language or file/database formats) in order to meet the business objectives described above.

Applying the pattern

EAI should not be considered a project or an application, nor should it be a huge undertaking in effort and/or costs. EAI is simply a strategic design pattern. The design automates business processes through information technology.

The most significant underpinning of a well-designed integration pattern is that it can be used over and over. Specifically, the pattern can be reused to automate business processes, regardless of the problem type, complexity, size of business process (small to very large), whether there is human intervention or not, or any other factor.

From a business perspective, a well designed integration strategy is a business enabler allowing the business to automate (i.e. integrate) processes from end to end in a three-month delivery cycle. Further, it provides the business with a “control system” that facilitates more efficient operations, better quality data (or even the ability to see the data for the first time), lower total cost of ownership, and better customer and stakeholder value.

An Integration Strategy Blueprint

What does an integration design pattern look like? The accompanying diagram is an example of a high-level integration blueprint.

How it works

The business has the objective of identifying, flowcharting and documenting the top three business processes that require improvement. The top three choices are based on the bottom line with respect to customer service and/or stakeholder value.

Based on the top three business processes, IT objectives consist of:

1. Identifying which applications and/or data are required for integration for the top three business processes. Enabling those applications by buying or building an adapter(s) so that the data can be published or subscribed to.

2. Choosing adapters that allow applications to be connected to a messaging bus using a common data format (like XML). Once the application is connected to the messaging bus via an adapter, the data is ready to be used by the business processes.

3. Coordinating application workflow to sequence the business-process events. Each event may or may not involve human intervention. If human intervention is required, a common approach is to use a work list (or work queue) that contains work items.

How to use it

The key to successfully solving integration issues involves tactically implementing integration between two to three applications at a time in three-month delivery cycles. This is absolutely critical to the success of implementing an integration strategy. Most integration implementations fail because they are too large, with unrealistic expectations on what can be accomplished in a given time frame with a limited number of resources.

Rather than trying to address the issue as an enterprise problem (i.e. trying to boil the ocean), bite off small chunks at a time that can be realistically delivered into operations within a three-month period. This approach is absolutely essential in understanding how to successfully implement an integration strategy.

What is your integration strategy?

In order to design your own integration strategy, ask the following questions:

1. How many active applications are in your organization in total? A common sizing pattern is that organizations with 200 staff or less have about a dozen business-critical applications, organizations with 2,000 staff have about 100 applications; and organizations with 20,000 staff may have over 1,000 active applications. Obviously, no additional applications are needed. A way to leverage the current investment is required, and the solution is integration. Business units often request new applications to handle problems that can be solved by data already existing within the organization, but that data is currently inaccessible by users.

2. Are all of your core business processes documented from end-to-end? Start by documenting the top three processes. You should include Use Cases and detailed requirements.

3. Do you have a matrix of documented business processes that includes the applications and/or data stores they use? This is useful when documenting which applications or data stores map to which piece of an end-to-end business process.

4. What is your strategy for integrating these applications and enabling workflow automation? In other words, how will business and IT design and execute an integration strategy together?

5. How will you be executing your organization’s business processes from end-to-end? What is your plan? “How” refers to defining the actual documented steps you will take to deliver a fully automated business process. This will occur within a three-month cycle.

6. How do you measure the Key Operating Indicators (KOI) of your integration solutions? KOIs are used both by IT and the business. They provide a feedback loop for both reporting on performance indicators and implementing corrective action. This typically is measured in near real time, hourly or daily.

7. How will you be measuring the success and ROI of automating your end-to-end business processes? Simply put, how do you measure the stakeholder value for every dollar that flows into an automated business process, and what comes out the other side? This is typically measured in quarterly terms, four times a year.

A caution on technology selection

If you believe that all Enterprise Application Integration technologies provide the same capabilities, albeit some better than others, then what are the selection criteria used to choose one over another? One criterion would be a tool suite that provides realistic ways for IT professionals to deliver business automation solutions in three-month cycles or less.

Let’s go ahead and assume that each integration technology tool suite has the same capabilities. Then the only criteria left are price and practicality. Price is obvious, as we all know how to select based on price. Practicality is another story.

“Practicality” means that regardless of the integration tool suites chosen, the reality is that we are either a Java, IBM or Microsoft organization or some combination thereof. So pick a toolset that shares common ground with your IT resources. Even though any one of the integration toolsets is designed to work on any platform with any programming language or application, your organization has most likely already chosen a preferred platform and/or language.

If multi-language or heterogeneous platforms are deployed, then it really doesn’t matter what integration tool suite you choose. What matters most is that you have people with programming and systems engineering skills who can understand and use the integration tool suites in an efficient and effective manner in order to deliver automated business solutions within three-month cycles.

The bottom line

If you don’t have an integration strategy in today’s market, ask yourself why? Very few new applications are being bought for organizations. In fact, as mentioned previously, there are simply too many applications to be managed effectively and efficiently.

What organizations need to do is leverage their current application investment through integration. How do you integrate applications? You do it two or three applications at a time in three-month delivery cycles. That’s the silver bullet in EAI.

Mitch Barnett is President and co-founder of 5 by 5 Software Ventures Ltd., a software development company providing Enterprise Application Integration, Business Process Automation and Workflow Management solutions for Canada’s large and mid-sized organizations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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