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Melding front- and back-office applications is essential for any e-business.

No department or function can stand alone in an e-business. The world is moving too fast, propelled by rapid technological change, frequent new-product rollouts, rising customer demands, and constantly evolving industry standards. A customer calls, but the item he wants is on back order? Forget it–a competitor can deliver in two days. A salesperson wants to quote an up-to-the-minute price, but can’t get into the right financials database? Her rival will close the sale. Computers have to cooperate–bridging the chasm separating the front office, back-end operations, and the supply chain, to keep customers happy, costs down, and revenue flowing.

That’s where integration comes in–the art of melding together an intricate set of applications so that they work smoothly as one to organize, route, and transform information.

Think of an integrated enterprise as an automobile: The wheels are a company’s customer-facing applications, such as customer service, e-mail marketing, the help desk, Web storefronts, and sales-force automation; the engine is such back-end apps as financials, inventory management, e-procurement, and business intelligence. And the driveshaft–the part that makes the car go–is a variety of connective applications, sometimes called middleware. Multifaceted enterprise apps–enterprise resource planning (ERP) on the back end and customer relationship management (CRM) on the front end, for example–are akin to large car subassemblies such as the transmission and electrical system.

We won’t draw an analogy to the car’s exhaust pipe, because this metaphor has gone far enough. But you get the point–successful e-businesses integrate their back ends, and the more integrated they are, the faster they travel on the road to prosperity.

Terra incognita

So how does a small-to-midsized firm with big ideas but limited resources tie its front end to its back end? With difficulty, care, and a lot of help from smart people. Back-end integration is a foray into unfamiliar territory for most CIOs and IT managers, a journey made even more unsettling by the fact that nontechies–sales and marketing people, the CFO and CEO–are along for the ride, and watching their every move. Managers must develop a clear road map of the various cross-functional apps and how they integrate to form the drive train of the enterprise, and figure out how to reorient and modify legacy systems that can’t talk to each other.

It doesn’t help that the integration landscape is so fragmented and confusing, with a wide variety of approaches, technologies, and standards. You can go the Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) route, installing middleware that links otherwise incompatible applications. Or you can try to adapt one of the new soup-to-nuts enterprise application suites to your needs, probably with a fair amount of help from a system integrator. Java variants abound; even Extensible Markup Language (XML)–widely seen as the de facto standard for defining business documents–is not as simple a choice as it would first appear, with different groups pushing their own standard and schemas.

Fortunately, an entire marketplace of integration technologies, products, and services has developed to address these complex and confusing back-end integration issues. The IT manager’s task is to navigate the narrow channel between vendors’ hype and functionality at the right price.

Sticky business

Some companies have opted to tie disparate applications together by writing custom integration code. This is often called glue, so named because its primary purpose is to stick two or more applications together. Writing the code is not difficult, but supporting and adding to it becomes costly over time. Because glue code is typically written quickly and not documented well, it is not readily recycled and is expensive to maintain.

But the biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it creates a hard-wired operating environment that limits a company’s ability to quickly and easily add new functions and capabilities to its information systems. Every change requires writing new code, and in the lightning-paced world of e-business, this type of operating environment is cumbersome and can leave the business at a competitive disadvantage.

The package deal

Another approach–very popular with software vendors, of course–is to purchase a packaged application or application suite, essentially an integration solution in a can. Art Technology Group’s (ATG) Dynamo Commerce Suite is an example of this type of product. The suite includes the Dynamo Scenario Server to manage customer relationships across multiple channels, a Personalization Server to deliver customized content, an e-commerce server, an application server, and a Control Center application for centralized management.

BabyCenter Inc., developer of a Web site for new and expectant parents, picked Dynamo Commerce Suite as a replacement for its Web-development platform. Steven Fram, BabyCenter’s vice president of engineering, likes ATG Dynamo’s 100-percent Java architecture because it allows BabyCenter to expedite Web development by assembling modular application building blocks. “Because Dynamo is Java-based, we can build a better foundation for our long-term Web business strategies,” he says. And because Dynamo manages all the components of an application, it saves coding time.

A new, trendy e-business integration application is crowned virtually every month, only to be supplanted by a hot successor. One month it’s ATG Dynamo, the next it’s InterShop’s Enfinity or Blue Martini Software’s products. Hundreds of companies per year swallow the marketing pitch and fork over six figures for a super application or suite without stopping to consider whether it’s right for them. A product that’s rated No. 1 but doesn’t further your business objectives or fit your architectural vision won’t cut it, while another less heralded product might be just the ticket. It’s up to the buyer to perform the necessary due diligence.

While many of these ERP, Supply Chain Management (SCM) and other types of enterprise application suites are very powerful, most businesses will have to create or buy some additional pieces and do some coding to achieve full integration. No one vendor in the e-business world can provide every piece of the puzzle. “Package implementations never meet all the needs of the customer, says David Moore, director of technology for the Minneapolis office of Zentropy Partners, an e-business consulting firm. “There are always modifications, there’s always process engineering.”

The good news is that many of these suites provide integration teams with 80 to 90 percent of what they need, right out of the box. This can result in significant savings in development time and expense.

XML: the hope versus the hype

The future of XML looms large in any discussion of back-end integration. XML is a markup language for documents, and contains such structured information as text, e-commerce transactions, mathematical equations, object metadata, and server APIs. XML’s ability to make this data intelligible across platforms makes the language a natural for solving both internal integration challenges and issues that arise when trading partners attempt to integrate their back ends.

Many experts see XML as the lingua franca of EAI and e-commerce–if various standards organizations and industry consortia can agree on schema for interpreting each other’s documents. Three major players in XML standardization are RosettaNet, a consortium formed to develop e-commerce standards for IT, electronic components and semiconductor manufacturing industries;, a Microsoft-backed group working on a cross-industry framework for e-commerce; and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is expected to quiet the XML babel with its XML Schema early this year.

Mike Giesler, CIO of Ethyl Corp., a petroleum additives company based in Richmond, Va., is an avid XML proponent. “We want everything that leaves our shop to be transmitted in XML,” he says. “It will save time and money, lower the cost of entry by allowing us to participate in a standard use of the Internet, and enable us to communicate easily with all trading partners.” Giesler adds that it’s too early to calculate time and dollar savings, but he does foresee major financial windfalls, with 80 percent savings on transaction processing alone.

One fly in the ointment for XML is the fact that it doesn’t deliver all the functionality of Electronic Data Integration (EDI), the original technology for B2B integration. Larger companies that have invested in EDI over the past 20 years are unlikely to discard it in favor of XML, so tools for translating XML data into EDI transaction sets (and vice versa) may have to be built into integration solutions.

Moving the back end outside

Organizations that can’t muster the resources to design their own integration solutions or implement a packaged solution have another option–outsourcing. Outsourcing back-end business processes to an application service provider (ASP) that knows how to tie them into your front-office apps has several advantages.

First, outsourcing saves a bundle in IT costs. The ASP provides not only the servers, network infrastructure, and support personnel, but in many cases also covers software acquisition and licensing costs. Granted, some of these expenses will most likely be passed on through monthly service fees, but even then the savings are significant. For example, a typical ASP can provide e-mail boxes via POP or the Web for about $5 per mailbox per month–compared with $80 to $150 per user per month for in-house e-mail. Applied to your other business processes and systems, cost reductions of that magnitude have a lot of appeal.

The ASP model also eliminates the expense of acquiring or training in-house integration talent. Instead of hiring staffers devoted to building and maintaining an e-business infrastructure, an IT department can concentrate on furthering the company’s strategic objectives.

There are potential downsides to entrusting an ASP with your back end, however. The main one is experience. How experienced is the ASP in integrating applications and troubleshooting the glitches that inevitably arise? By outsourcing, an IT manager loses a measure of control; if something goes wrong, it’s up to the ASP to resolve the problem before customers, suppliers, and the accounting department revolt.

For companies that are comfortable with letting go, there’s no shortage of back-end hosts in a booming ASP market. Providers range from venerable organizations such as New York-based PriceWaterhouseCoopers to relative newcomers like reSource Partners Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, and Boston-based, a provider of invoicing, billing, and time-management services.

Getting it together

Only by relentlessly integrating its front- and back-office applications can a business meet the challenges of today’s e-marketplace. To revisit the car analogy, smoothly meshed components waste less energy and are less likely to break down–definite advantages in the race to get to market. Regardless of whether a company goes the EAI route, buys an integrated package or suite, or outsources, the following pointers apply:

Entrust an integration project to a single manager, partnered with experienced business leaders and developers who understand how to deliver and deploy integrated applications.

Because of the cost and complexity of integration, a staged approach often works best. Phased integration allows for continuous evaluation of strategy and midcourse corrections if necessary.

Select a solution that defines the task at hand graphically without lengthy custom programming. Graphical tools make it easier to visualize business processes before implementation–particularly important for a development environment in which nontechnical people have the final say.

Once the integrated system is up and running, constantly monitor the status of automated transactions so that any exceptions can be flagged and dealt with properly, minimizing fallout with customers and suppliers.

Contributing Editor Don Fitzwater is a principal partner in Interface Solutions, a Minneapolis consulting firm.

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