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Enterprise vendors fall short on integration

by David Longworth
February 17th, 2003

Tom Siebel of Siebel Systems believes all enterprise applications will soon be exposed as web services and to that end has signed strategic "multi-million dollar" development deals with Microsoft and IBM.

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Packaged enterprise software vendors have begun to web service enable their products, but leave customers struggling to manage inter-application integration:
  • SAP, Siebel, PeopleSoft and Oracle provide connectors for web services
  • Managing connections remains a challenge
  • Specialist infrastructure vendors say they provide a more complete solution
  • Especially when integrating disparate systems

Glossary terms: loose coupling, portal, packaged software, SAML, lookup tool

Larry Ellison of Oracle thinks this is the most ridiculous thing he has heard in all his life. "You can only understand web services if you've been in the fashion industry," he told Oracle Apps World last year. "It's not going to do all the things people claim it will do."

Despite Ellison's scepticism, Oracle has joined Siebel, SAP and PeopleSoft in the rush to embrace the new fad. All the major enterprise software vendors have recently either produced integration components for web services or announced them for upcoming releases. But Ellison may prove right on one point: those components won't do everything customers will need them to do as they migrate to a web services-based architecture.

Old-world adapters
Adding an integration capability is the bare minimum vendors must do to stay in the game. Several have turned to infrastructure vendor Actional for the technology to make this all-important first step. Its SOAPswitch product provides the web service adapters for integration platforms such as PeopleSoft Connect and Siebel Universal Application Network.

"The vendors have taken a decision that they will provide integration and move from their old-world view to expose their applications as web services, and they need adapters," explains James Phillips, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Actional. "SOAPswitch unlocks that potential, gets you up-and-running and at the races."

Phillips calls this basic platform integration 'transactionality': "Let's say a company wants to use a web service to accept orders. It then needs to update inventory in SAP, customer records in Siebel and warehouse data in a legacy system. The web service is a set of interactions with all three systems and the [SOAPswitch] platform allows you to do all the interactions."

In adopting this technology, vendors are merely following a path already well-trodden by a number of their customers. In many projects, enterprise portals have used web services to access information from back-office applications. A good example is Charles Schwab, whose employee self-service portal uses SOAPswitch to take information from a PeopleSoft system, convert it to a web service and then feed a BEA WebLogic portal.

No ideal solution
The conversion of the packaged vendors to the cause will make such projects easier in future, but customers are already looking to do more than simply enable applications to talk to each other using web services. The raw connection capability needs to be supplemented with higher-level management tools.

"It's all well and good PeopleSoft, Siebel or SAP delivering pre-integration or an integration connector, but it's another thing to integrate to the enterprise in a secure, reliable, manageable way," explains Eric Pulier, CEO of infrastructure vendor Digital Evolution. "What you do not want to do, for example, is use a security method that differs from your company standard."

In the idealized world the packaged software vendors have a habit of assuming, their software is the center of their customers' IT universe, and so all the important transactions are managed within the package itself. But in reality, no company is ever exclusively out-of-the box Oracle or wall-to-wall SAP. "Enterprises have a huge number of applications," says Pulier. "There will never be a time when they all conform to the standards. The vast majority will conform more rapidly than you might think, but there will still be smaller or home-grown applications."

SAP, which last month announced its Enterprise Service Architecture, a web services platform on which all its future products will be built, now appears to acknowledge this reality. Martin Tenk, head of technology at SAP UK, says: "We recognize that we will never be the only applications vendor, nor will we build all the applications a customer needs. Web services will allow customers to communicate with non-SAP sources."

But will a packaged vendor offer sufficient management capabilities to take care of those external links? Actional has recently repositioned itself to focus on the management task, rather than competing directly with enterprise vendors on the raw connection capability. Phillips says: "The real problem customers encounter in their ability to move to a loosely coupled environment is around issues like how they keep the services running, version management and security." He adds that in many cases, including its high-profile implementation of travel and itinerary management for SABRE, customers were on the point of developing their own solutions when they turned to Actional.

Intermediary platform
Together with other infrastructure players like AmberPoint, Confluent Software and Glue Technology, these vendors' solutions provide an intermediary, gateway or management platform which handles roles such as systems management (which includes handling service level agreement throughout all the services involved), lifecycle management (including versioning), business management and security. Their products often incorporate emerging web services standards much earlier than the larger vendors — Digital Evolution, for example, claims to be the first to be using the SAML single sign-on standard in large-scale production.

Using a separate, dedicated management platform is especially relevant when enterprises want to integrate processes across multiple systems. Pulier gives the example of one enterprise customer, which had PeopleSoft, Siebel and a number of mainframe applications, together with a goal to work towards a standards-based, loosely coupled environment. Spurred on by the demands of an enterprise information portal, it used the vendor's DE Management Server to set up web services to access the various applications required.

"The way the system works is that different packages or systems are exposed in different ways. In Siebel and PeopleSoft, 90 per cent of the work has been done for you. In the mainframe, none of it has been done." What would previously have been an 18-month project, involving massive data warehousing overheads, has instead taken the unnamed customer less than four months to complete. The company now has real-time information for decision making that runs across all its systems, and which fits in with a long-term decommissioning strategy for its mainframe applications.

This is just the sort of success story the packaged software vendors will want to be associated with as they move to add web services capabilities. But doing so will mean guaranteeing secure, reliable connections outside the safety of their own software environment — a capability they've so far failed to offer.

More on this topic


Vendor website

SOA Software
Vendor website (formerly Digital Evolution)

Other vendors
AmberPoint, Confluent Software, Glue Technology


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