Holy Grail for a Mixed-Up World

 
 
By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2002-02-04
 
 
 
 Mixed-Up World">

They were wrong. Though they had built a distributed architecture to deliver critical information immediately to major airports, Delta found it would be too expensive and difficult to deploy the architecture on a large scale. Instead, it turned to Tibco Software. "Our system didn't scale to the volumes we needed," says Dean Compton, director of middleware services at Delta Technology, the airline's IT division.

PDF DownloadIn contracting with Tibco, one of the leading companies in an area called enterprise application integration (EAI), Delta has joined a trend that is gaining momentum. EAI is the acronym that has come to be associated with making disparate systems work together—an Oracle database and an SAP application, say, or NT and Unix. It's been the holy grail for technology professionals since the early 1990s, when an explosion of incompatible systems emerged as a major frustration for big companies stuck with applications that couldn't talk to one another and data silos that couldn't easily be accessed. And the pace of merger activity in the last five years has only exacerbated the frustrations of technology executives now having to get newly inherited applications to work with their own entrenched systems—which generally had plenty of problems to begin with. "In the Fortune 2000, we've got big, bad, ugly hairballs," says Christy Bass, an Accenture consultant who founded the firm's EAI practice a couple of years ago and now oversees the 1,800 people in it.

The bad news, as anyone knowledgeable about EAI will tell you, is that the software that's supposed to fuse applications together—software called "adapters" by those in the industry—doesn't always work perfectly. "You're never going to see 100% out-of-the-box integration," Bass says.

But that drawback isn't stopping information executives from taking on EAI projects. A recent Forrester report suggests many big companies are spending more than $6 million a year on EAI projects. That's good news for EAI vendors like Tibco, WebMethods and Vitria. Moreover, the demand for integration products and services is drawing some of the biggest technology names. IBM recently bought a small EAI vendor called CrossWorlds, and Microsoft is tiptoeing into the market via its BizTalk software.

What makes technology users so willing to invest in EAI despite its inherent limitations? Apparently, the fact that not doing EAI projects would leave them even worse off. For instance, Bud Albers, the chief technology officer of Getty Images, freely acknowledges that his company's EAI project (carried out with the help of Vitria) has required 10% to 15% custom-coding work. But without an EAI investment, however imperfect, he says his company would not have the system it needs to sell its collection of 70 million images to advertising agencies, newspapers and other businesses.

Cost savings are another potential benefit. At Delta, the use of a distributed architecture on a wider scale may have worked but would also have been very expensive, requiring the company to add 24 servers to the 16 it was using—at a cost approaching $1 million in hardware alone.

And sometimes, you can't stay in business without undertaking an EAI initiative.

Take the case of American Electric Power. After the deregulation of the electrical power industry in Texas, AEP had to spin off its retail operations. The obstacle: AEP Retail Energy, the new company, needed to connect a back- office billing system in Tulsa, Okla., to a phone center in Miami that was running a Siebel customer relationship management system. AEP found what it needed in an adapter from WebMethods.

Companies that successfully complete one integration project often find opportunities for more. Sandy McGregor, director of EAI for Corporate Express, a B2B distributor of office supplies, says her company's use of WebMethods to add stock-checking capabilities to its Web site caught the attention of the CEO at corporate parent Buhrmann NV. Now, she says, WebMethods is being used to unify Buhrmann internationally, via a comprehensive business-process monitoring system.

Expertise Online

IT Toolbox EAI
www.eai.ittoolbox.com
This special-interest area of IT Toolbox's site includes discussion forums, job listings and summaries of leading integration packages

OASIS
www.oasis-open.org
The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards includes resources for professionals looking to implement international B2B standards such as ebXML for EAI and other integration tasks