Beyond integration

The new generation of Web services-enabled enterprise apps means a smooth blend of homegrown tools and packaged software

NEW TECHNOLOGIES and evolving business practices guarantee that enterprise apps are never fully cooked. Right now, enterprise application vendors are feeling the heat to respond to users' demands for greater interaction among applications, which are driven by business incentives such as e-commerce and e-procurement. The Web services architecture is the foundation to steer that integration away from proprietary paths and create infinitely more flexible solutions.

Web services promises a more manageable approach to extending the scope of applications beyond their original platform and business context. For instance, connecting a company to its suppliers for e-procurement applications is a nightmare if each company has different suites and platforms, which translates to developing discrete integration logic for each business process and for each partner or using third-party integration hubs. But with Web services-enabled suites, the same company could build in interoperability between similar software.

Major vendors are embracing Web services for their applications, expecting to reap such benefits as less-expensive support for multiple platforms, standardized architectures, and easy integration with custom applications and other vendors' suites. And customers want Web services-enabled applications: 65 percent of respondents to the 2002 InfoWorld Web Services Applications Survey consider deploying Web services a priority. They reported integration across the enterprise and beyond organizational boundaries as the technologies' top advantage. Of those who've already deployed Web services, 55 percent are focusing on ERP applications (a likely point of integration), and 46 percent are using Web services to solve various integration issues.

To take full advantage of the new Web services-enabled suites, CTOs with a mixed portfolio will have to beef up their own applications -- many already are, resulting in better integration between homemade and packaged software, such as their home-built order entry system and ERP suite.

Although Web services standards are still being perfected, the Web Services Applications Survey shows that 38 percent of the respondents have already put the technology to work.

Web services are dramatically changing the face of packaged applications. As every CTO knows all too well, deploying a legacy suite creates unnecessary constraints, including dependence on one vendor and difficult integration with other tools. In contrast, a Web services-enabled suite offers freedom to mix and match functionality as well as a simplified implementation.

Take PeopleSoft: The latest version of its Web-friendly, multifunctional suite of applications takes advantage of Web services technologies such as XML, UDDI, and WSDL. What differentiates this suite from those of competitors (such as Oracle) is that its applications are integrated with Web services technologies. For instance, a PeopleSoft CRM module looking for product information will query a UDDI directory to locate and contact the inventory management application; the UDDI directory and the inventory management tools are part of PeopleSoft's suite, but both applications behave according to stringent Web services protocols. When a session is established, the CRM module and the inventory management tool will negotiate the information to exchange via a WSDL interface that handles data semantics and formatting.

This elegant approach has several advantages, including sheltering each tool from changes in other modules and providing easy access from other applications. But most significant is that each application acts as an open book, its key elements of integration readily available via UDDI and WSDL.

Vendors are also focusing on BPI, extending the scope of their suites to include other vendors' applications -- a welcome change for the 63 percent of respondents who deem BPI as their primary goal for Web services. For instance, Siebel is developing the Web services-based UAN (Universal Application Network), which will enable its CRM applications to participate in heterogeneous business processes with Web services-compliant software from other vendors. UAN is scheduled to go live in the third quarter of 2002 when Siebel 7.5 is released.

For a CRM-centric vendor such as Siebel to maintain its market leadership, it must offer pan-vendor interoperability that can create composite business processes. Even SAP, which offers a range of applications to cover all business needs, is moving toward incorporating competitors' solutions in a variety of business processes. Called "xApps," SAP's new set of applications works across various business processes. SAP will extend the functionality of xApps according to customers' demands; customers may not have programmatic access to this technology.

According to the Web Services Applications Survey, many IT leaders consider Web services an appropriate architecture for simplifying interoperability and creating applications tuned to their business requirements; 38 percent are already committed to Web services and have deployed custom Web services applications, and another 26 percent will join the ranks within the year.

When it comes to legacy enterprise applications, CTOs face a tough choice: wait for the vendor to deliver a Web services version or switch to a different suite. Waiting could mean missing out on new profit opportunities, but opting for a new suite can be risky and is always expensive. In the end, IT executives will probably decide that the benefits of doing business with partners in a streamlined, efficient, and less-expensive fashion should not be ignored.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.