IN THE BEGINNING, there was batch processing: ERP and supply chain systems and data warehouses. Geared for monthly planning and analysis, these systems talked to one another, if at all, using proprietary interfaces and query-based messaging architectures. Often, managers couldn't see what was going on in their businesses until it was too late to react.
For many organizations little has changed, and executives are still making key decisions based on batches of sales, manufacturing, and other critical data that is days, weeks, or even months old. In an information-driven economy, where competitors are acting on what's happening now and not what happened last month, the batch approach just isn't good enough.
But a brighter day is breaking as a slew of technologies are making "straight-through processing" and real-time applications more affordable and pervasive. Going forward, Web services promise to have a dramatic impact by easing application integration and delivering real-time information to places that batch data couldn't reach. In the meantime, technologies for connecting applications, data, and users -- and technologies for monitoring, analyzing, and optimizing real-time business processes -- have already made major strides.
The first steps toward real-time data integration were taken by EAI (enterprise application integration) vendors such as Tibco, webMethods, and Vitria, who came along with publish-and-subscribe messaging architectures, libraries of adapters to help enterprise applications talk to one another, and a hub-and-spoke model to make sure those conversations were orderly.
Today, application integration inside the firewall -- a crucial building block for the real-time enterprise -- is becoming easier thanks to standards-based protocols such as JMS (Java Messaging Service), JCA (Java Connector Architecture), and J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) application servers, which are increasingly acting as integration platforms.
Now the battle for real-time integration -- although far from over inside the firewall -- is shifting not only higher in the stack, to software for managing event-driven business processes and workflows, but also outside the firewall, to technologies for providing cheaper and lighter-weight alternatives to EDI (electronic data interchange) and private networks for connecting the "extended enterprise," or multiple business partners.
"What we're talking about here is real-time distributed logic, and transport is the huge missing piece," says John Blair, CEO of San Francisco-based Kenamea, one of a handful of startups working to build more reliable and secure event-driven messaging environments outside the firewall using enhancements to HTTP. Kenamea and companies such as KnowNow and Bang Networks, while each focusing on discrete pieces of the puzzle, are working toward building a Web-enabled infrastructure for real-time business processes.
"The essence of it is event-driven," Blair says. "When something happens, the people who care about it get notified." A utility might give its energy traders real-time information about current generator capacity so they can alter their bids on the fly, for example, by linking the generators' output meters to the traders' desktops. Or a financial services firm might tie together its far-flung CRM and transactional database systems to generate an outbound thank-you call when an important customer uses a self-service channel to make a big trade.