Next-gen enterprise apps

Collaborative applications bring existing apps together to enable more intelligent, complex, and efficient interaction

THE NEXT GENERATION of enterprise applications is promising to shed traditional shackles, spanning functional silos to link data seamlessly among customer, supplier, financial, and other applications both inside and outside company firewalls.

With greater amounts of data exposed as XML and tied together via Web services, enterprises are looking to lash together compenentized business processes to attack business problems with the best parts of existing applications. These emerging collaborative or composite applications will combine functions from multiple application systems to execute a larger, near real-time process that will then be published as a Web service.

Companies will no longer need to tailor business processes and workflow to fit their ERP system parameters. Instead, they will first define their business objectives and then create easily changeable and disposable composite applications to support their goals as they evolve, according to industry observers.

"These are not hard-and-fast apps," says James Governor, a London-based industry analyst at Illuminata. "They are installed [with] the sure knowledge that business processes will change and that the partners you integrate with will change."

Eyes on the apps

As the nascent model evolves, a stampede of vendors is jockeying to support this next generation of enterprise applications through various approaches to building the underlying infrastructure to support collaborative applications.

Traditional EAI (enterprise application integration) vendors such as Tibco and SeeBeyond are building value-added services such as business process management on top of their proprietary platforms, whereas application-server vendors are moving quickly to support Web services by offering integration servers.

In addition, enterprise application vendors such as Oracle and SAP are moving to expose their applications as XML and to build tighter integration between product offerings. And another category of vendors such as Fuego and Sonic Software are focusing on exposing legacy and custom applications as Web services and on building new applications as Web services.

As are many of the other EAI players, Vitria is placing its bet on a business process management engine and a quiver of Web services to successfully orchestrate these new-breed collaborative apps.

"Web services is the first real hope for having a transport-agnostic, platform-agnostic, and firewall-agnostic way of doing a component or composite application model," says Suresh Chandrasekaran, director of product management at Vitria in Sunnyvale, Calif.

And yet, the Vitrias, Tibcos, and webMethods of the world still contend that the old must coexist with the new, the result of which will be an architectural melange of message-based and service-oriented infrastructures.

"Stringing together Web services does not an application make," says Andy Astor, vice president of enterprise Web services at Fairfax, Va.-based webMethods. Astor singles out the missing elements of Web services, including transactionality, security, and management, as hurdles to the adoption of collaborative apps beyond the firewall. "When the components are done, it becomes a matter of integration, business process automation, and workflow," he says.

Rather than integrate through a centralized broker, others prefer a more distributed approach to enabling composite applications. Sonic Software's Sonic XQ product, for instance, is founded on a Java-based messaging architecture that dispatches a "lightweight" service container called an ESB (Enterprise Service Bus) to specific parts of the enterprise. The ESB allows companies to target the aggregation of components across diverse applications at the point at which integration is needed, rather than forcing them to plug costly adapters into every API in a Siebel suite, for example, says Gordon Van Huizen, vice president of product management at Bedford, Mass.-based Sonic. "We don't host or build the apps, but we house the collaboration aspects between the apps," he adds.

These next-generation enterprise applications will reside in a services architecture that will be driven primarily by business functions and process as opposed to data, according to industry observers. In a services-oriented architecture, an enterprise could call a service to place an online order and execute original logic rather than send data back and forth, explains Mike New, director of integration strategy at WRQ in Seattle. For example, WRQ exposes business functions from SAP or Siebel or legacy systems as discrete components; as a result, a company can literally drag and drop a business function from SAP followed by something from an IBM mainframe without rewriting code, New adds.

Whichever form they take, collaborative applications will be especially valuable for SCM (supply-chain management) and b-to-b endeavors, processes that rely on the combination and interaction of data from several sources. For example, a global company with multiple product lines -- each with its own sales system from different vendors -- could tack a Web service to each system and build a global sales cube to extract data from each system to obtain a composite view of sales information.

To integrate its supply chain, London Drugs, a large retail chain in Vancouver, British Columbia, is using Microsoft's BizTalk Server as the middleware hub to pull together pieces of disparate applications and to create loosely coupled applications that address a particular business need.

"We were able to bring our warehouse management system, PeopleSoft apps, and supply-chain system together," says Nick Curalli, general manager of IT at London Drugs. "We now have real-time visibility into inventory."

Integration for collaboration

First Trust, a Denver-based company that performs back-office processing and operations for third-party financial institutions, is also contemplating a collaborative workflow application. The app would link First Trust to a sister brokerage company to execute a stock trade all the way through to settlement, says Greg Bakke, director of systems development at FiServ, the Wisconsin-based parent company of First Trust.

Bakke's enthusiasm for collaborative applications stems from a desire to use Web services to put a standardized insulation layer over all of First Trust's applications to let different product lines and users interact with pieces of the apps without needing point-to-point integration, he says. Although wary of Web services' lack of security and guaranteed message delivery, Bakke has begun preparation for creating collaborative apps by putting Web services wrappers around the company's most important components while he continues to monitor the development of Web services standards.

"Basically on our integration, we are sold, sold, sold on Web services and the collaborative app environment," says Bakke, who is using SilverStream's application server and Composer development product for converting apps and data to XML.

SilverStream's approach includes its Composer product, which teaches back-end systems to speak XML, and its Process Manager, which assembles the components culled from packaged and proprietary applications into collaborative applications, according to Fred Holahan, vice president and general manager of e-business integration products at SilverStream in Billerica, Mass.

Collaborative applications are also sparking interest as a way to create a unified customer data model across disparate applications or business units. Journee Software, in Austin, Texas, specializes in software that sits atop the application server to obtain a comprehensive view of data no matter its location.

The traditional integration effort to replicate the same set of customer data to all of a company's touch points -- a CRM system, self-service applications, and a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) gateway -- is too great for most companies, says Rob Beauchamp, CTO of Journee. Collaborative apps, however, can offer a more straightforward approach.

"The middle layer acts as the primary source of all of the customer data and all the transaction against that customer data. You integrate with the back-end system once to the middle layer and then expose that middle layer to all the panels where the data is needed," Beauchamp says. "The primary contact between the channels and the middle layer is a Web service."

Indeed, these next-generation enterprise applications present a logical step for enterprises looking to get more out of existing IT resources, using XML and Web services to connect existing apps for better efficiency and real-time capabilities. Challenges do remain around data transformation and process coordination (see " Collaborative challenges "); some analysts argue that the full potential of truly collaborative apps will not be realized until evolving Web services standards make interactions between services more robust and meaningful.

"I think we are within a year of doing real collaborative apps," says Joanne Friedman, vice president of e-business strategies at Meta Group in Toronto. "Right now we are really only at the point of defining how one Web service should interact with another, how it should behave, and what the expectations are."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.