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Integration that defies EAI convention

by David Longworth
May 12th, 2003

Cutting out proprietary EAI hubs can slash the cost of application integration projects by two thirds or more — saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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In the right conditions, service-oriented approaches deliver integration for far less money and effort than traditional EAI:
  • Standards-based messaging systems are emerging as an EAI alternative
  • A UK agribusiness exchange based its infrastructure on Java messaging and XML
  • Members linked systems in days rather than months, for a fifth of the cost of EAI
  • EAI excels when applications need direct access to native data
  • In most cases, asynchronous access is cheaper, simpler, more flexible — and fast enough

Glossary terms: asynchronous messaging, JMS, EAI, service-oriented, B2B, lookup tool

The trouble is, the savings come from deploying newly emerging service-oriented integration technologies, whereas the more expensive EAI platforms are already well established and accepted. Even when the higher-priced, proprietary EAI solution is overkill for the project in question, many organizations are loath to exchange its familiar certainties for the untried, standards-based alternative.

"People say they want a next-generation portal that does integration. But people are often looking for a Bentley when a Daewoo will do," says Sam Boonin, VP of marketing at San Francisco-based web services networking software vendor Blue Titan.

The proprietary enterprise application integration (EAI) products made their mark at a time when companies needed to connect newly installed customer-facing or supply-chain applications to their back-office ERP systems. Tight, end-to-end integration was the name of the game, and EAI excelled at placing an entire end-to-end process on a highly efficient, scalable, manageable and secure platform. But it came at a steep price, not only to buy, but also to implement and maintain; plugging the business logic of each separate application into the proprietary EAI hub is like revisiting each of the previous implementations and multiplying them together in cost and complexity.

The investment makes sense for core, mission-critical processes at the heart of the enterprise, but is harder to justify elsewhere, especially in fast-moving business environments, when the tight integration hampers agility. At the edge of the enterprise and in B2B, the tightly coupled information exchange of EAI is even less appropriate, as processes and structures differ so much from one business to another.

Until recently, there hasn't been any realistic alternative. But the emergence of service-oriented integration has introduced a far more efficient, flexible and low-cost approach. It obviates the need for complex integration adapters and a proprietary messaging hub through the use of web services standards such as SOAP for document recognition; XML standards such as XSLT for transformation; and asynchronous messaging standards such as JMS (Java Message Service). It allows applications to participate in processes without having to be tightly coupled together, enhancing agility and reusability. And it is orders of magnitude faster and cheaper to implement than EAI.

Online agribusiness
Agribusiness consortium First4Farming is a good example of a project where service-based integration can come into its own. Founded by a consortium of leading UK agricultural suppliers and manufacturers, it has 25 partners already exchanging orders, invoices, contracts and delivery notes and another 50-70 soon to follow. The underlying service-oriented infrastructure, which is based on Sonic Software's JMS-based message broker, was built by a consortium led by Sonic's parent, Progress Software.

Software developer Adaptris (motto: Don't Develop. Adapt) was the technology consortium member charged with creating the online trading exchange. It built a series of JMS adapters for F4F partners to install as plug-in services to their existing systems. The adapters handle all the partner-specific processing locally — transformation, translation, security and the core task of requesting details out of the existing back-office suite (SAP for example), which might include customer details, credit checks or simply raising an order — before passing the results to the Sonic broker over the JMS message bus.

But rather than using the Adaptris adapters to connect directly from its ERP system to the B2B exchange, one big agricultural company opted instead to go through its preferred in-house standard for integration, a SeeBeyond EAI hub. As you might expect from a traditional EAI project, the work took nine months to complete. More recently, F4F expanded its operations to Australia, and when the same company used the Adaptris alternative to connect its local subsidiary to the Australian exchange, it completed the integration in a matter of days.

"I challenge anyone to show me integration that fast," says Adaptris co-founder Jeff Bradshaw. "And it's unobtrusive integration — we don't want to make you change stuff in the application. As long as the application has a defined mechanism for input and output, we can work with it."

F4F has integrated the four largest Australian players in just four months. "We're looking at very simple integration projects, rather than ones that take forever and cost 100k [$150k] just for the software," says Bradshaw. "You can install it and get it working for under 20k [$30k] and in one project in Australia we were in and out in a matter of days, so it's an order of magnitude different."

Legacy reuse
The ability to reuse what already exists was very much the driving force for another F4F participant. Its existing back-end systems were built on different platforms — Progress, Microsoft, Unix and VMS — and the company wanted to break away from its historic reliance on specific technologies. It chose Lancashire-based Cal Software (another member of the F4F technology consortium) to help integrate its various back-end systems and connect to F4F.

"The company had a new IT director and one of the objectives was to find some way of moving the business forward to 21st-century technology without radically shaking up its existing applications," said Cal's commercial director Keith Richards. "It also wanted to build connections between its different businesses and isolate all the back-end systems so it could replace them if and when the need was identified."

Once the internal messaging was in place, the company would have both the infrastructure and the skills base to then add the connection to F4F and other marketplaces. "They wanted one centralized technology to allow them to skill up to not only stick together their existing systems but also connect out," explains technical director Glynn Harris. "They could have taken the traditional approach but integration projects are complex, time-consuming and difficult to test and maintain. Instead, they wanted to see what they could get out of using the Sonic product set and XML."

The company picked off two systems to link up initially. Cal Software wrote the management, configuration and reporting functionality in Java on top of the basic Sonic XQ (now called Sonic ESB) message router in just 20 days. The entire process of specification, development, implementation and initial testing was done in around 32 days. "It's rare to come across any integration project with anything like that timescale," says Harris.

Being JMS-based, the system can connect to any application that supports that standard. The only limiting factor, according to Harris, is how much support the back-office business system provides for JMS, although if no other option is available, the system can read a flat data file in the ubiquitous CSV (comma-separated value) format. "One of the key things is that using Sonic open technology you can deploy it on any platform that supports JMS — and another goal of ours is to write something once and keep on deploying it."

Disruptive results
The only limiting factor is where applications don't support the standard interfaces, since services have to connect at the application layer. EAI obviates that need by talking directly to the database, so it will still be the preferred choice — despite its higher cost — where direct access is the only option, or where it provides an indispensable speed advantage. But convergence on standards is proceeding at such a pace that leading technology analyst group IDC says the service-based message bus is "a disruptive technology that will revolutionize IT".

Blue Titan's Sam Boonin reckons 90 percent of projects can be covered off by using service-oriented integration in place of EAI. "The top ten most secure and reliable web sites are not ready for this yet. But 90 per cent don't require it to be that real-time and that's where web services is being applied. We won't take the stock exchange today. But there are a huge amount of process-oriented asynchronous projects that don't need to happen in real-time."

Blue Titan recently tied up with application server vendor BEA to provide a data integration solution and already has four or five joint customers. On one project for a mid-sized mortgage brokerage, the partners were directly up against EAI vendor Tibco for what Boonin says was a "typical" portal integration project. "It doesn't need to run in real-time. We persuaded them that the integration and presentation functionality was in BEA and Blue Titan as well as making it secure — and we could do it for a quarter of the price of Tibco."

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