The Integration Tribulation Emerges
Once we were discussing how supply chains are designed when someone made an insightful comment: “The vast majority of supply chains are not designed. They just happen. Their current form is the cumulative result of hundreds of mostly uncoordinated individual decisions made over many years or decades.” The same could be said about enterprise application integration for many companies, in spite of the earnest efforts of enterprise IT planners and architects. Many companies buy systems one at a time, figure out how they will integrate to whatever is needed to just make it work (pull in some data from here, connect to an API over there) all within the constraints of the initial schedule and budget; usually with the intention of doing a more complete job of integration in ‘Phase 2’ and beyond. Almost immediately and continuously things change — new applications are added, the data changes, customers make demands for new data/integration, initiatives to streamline are launched, etc.1 As a result, there is a patchwork of integrations, both internally between the enterprise’s own applications and externally with trading partners.
How We Got Here
If you step back and look across the world of enterprises, there has been a tremendous build out of enterprise application technology over the past couple of decades. We are much more dependent on IT systems to run our companies than ever before. In building out these portfolios, most companies have come to a couple of fundamental realizations:
- Great functionality is not enough. A large part of the value proposition for technology is the speed and ease of implementation and continued evolution of the systems.
- No single application can do it all — the myth of running your company on one monolithic ERP has been long busted. Even small companies are run on multiple applications. The cloud/SaaS in particular has driven an explosion of adoption by SMBs. Large multi-division companies can easily have hundreds of enterprise applications in their portfolio. All this drives the need for integration.
Platforms to the Rescue?
To ease the burden, many companies look to integration platforms, rather than trying to do point-to-point integrations using the built-in capabilities of the applications or implementing their own custom integrations. In fact, integration platforms can enable agility and competitiveness by letting companies more quickly evolve their application portfolio.
Integration platforms can come in many different forms to satisfy an enormous variety of use cases and requirements. Broadly speaking, integration technologies provide three types of functionality (which are often interwoven): Data integration, Application integration, and Business Process integration.
A2A vs. B2B
Although there is a large overlap in the underlying technologies used for internal A2A vs. external B2B integration (as shown in Figure 1 above), solution providers tend to have more expertise and focus on either A2A or B2B, but not usually both. Even for the full suites providers that do both, these tend to be separate solutions and often different groups within the solution provider. It would be nice for an IT department to be able to do both internal and external integration all on one platform and we do see the potential for the market to move in that direction. But for now buyers often have to buy two (or more) solutions to satisfy internal vs. external integration needs.
Often the need is to integrate externally — B2B integration. Examples of B2B integration use cases include:
- Complying with a trading partner request or mandate to integrate via EDI, flat file transfer, web services, or other means.
- Complying with regulations that mandate electronic integration.2
- Synchronizing data with trading partners, such as product or catalog data.
- Exchanging transactional data (Purchase Orders, Advance Ship Notices, Invoices, etc.) with trading partners in order to increase velocity and reduce errors.
- Collecting transactional data for business intelligence and analytic purposes.
- Sharing information with trading partners to collaborate or optimize (e.g. demand forecasts).
- Providing a mashup service using services from other providers or partners.
When faced with various integration goals or requirements — whether integrating internally within the enterprise or externally with trading partners — businesses need to make decisions, such as:
- To what extent, if at all, can any of the cloud-based platforms that I am already using provide the needed integration inherently? What to do about trading partners who are not on those cloud platforms?
- Should I use the built-in integration capabilities of the applications I have (whether cloud or on-premise) or should I purchase a separate integration platform?
- Can one integration platform meet all my data, application, and business process integration needs?
- Do I have the resources and expertise in-house to do this? If not, should I train my existing staff, hire someone new with the expertise, go with a consultant, find a managed service provider who can do it all, or some combination of these?
Integration Platform Pros and Cons
Integration platforms have their pros and cons. They can add a layer of complexity to implementation. They become one more piece of technology to pay for and manage. But they may help centralize your portfolio of integration code,3 which can be a significant advantage as a company grows and changes. They often save time and money compared with having to continually update all those individual integration points within the applications or especially compared to your own custom integration scripts and code. However, even with platforms, integration is never easy. The level of time and effort required is impacted a lot by the architecture of the platform.
Cloud Networks Provide Some B2B Integration
For B2B integration, the solution needs to not only integrate with internal applications but also manage the external gateway as data and files come and go from the enterprise requiring EDI, MFT, XML, or Workflow. If you are using a cloud application, particularly one that connects a network or community of users, you may find that type of functionality within your own cloud network or from the cloud application/network that specific trading partners ask you to use. When the cloud provider has integration utilities built in, it is often transparent to the end user which A2A or B2B tools are being used. Supply chain application users are increasingly relying on these.
There are many dozens of integration platforms out there. Some are geared towards B2B, some towards internal integration, but most do both. Today’s multi-tenant / networked cloud solutions often bring a convergence of internal A2A and external B2B. Some of the integration platforms worth noting include: Adeptia, Altova, Attunity, Stonebond, Liaison, Informatica, Cleo, Ipswitch, DiCentral, Sterling Commerce/IBM, GXS, TIBCO, Boomi, webMethods/Software AG, Composite, BizTalk, Cast Iron/IBM, and many others.
The selection of the right platform is a complex subject. On a high level, companies will need to consider the current and future scalability (how many applications, amount and variety of data and connections), needs for business process management and workflow, types of protocols, security, BI/analytics requirements, monitoring and auditing requirements, collaboration needs, and needs for professional services and/or managed service. A firm’s approach to integrating their applications and trading partners can make a big difference in their efficiency and competitiveness. So it is worth the time and effort to learn about and understand integration and then choose wisely.
1 Even in those companies where the CIO has decided “We are an SAP shop, period.” (or Oracle shop, or other) there invariably arises the need to buy best-of-breed applications, here and there. They end up offering a variety of applications to their internal customers that require integration between them. On top of that, they go and acquire or are acquired by someone running different system(s). Plus, trading partners demand integration. There always ends up being many systems to integrate in a large company. — Return to article text above
2 Such as the meaningful use requirements in HITECH, which among other things require care providers to transmit permissible prescriptions electronically and exchange clinical information electronically with other providers and patient-authorized entities. — Return to article text above
3 The solutions provided by large integration companies actually contain a portfolio of applications/tool sets, not one monolithic code base with everything you need all ready to plug into. — Return to article text above
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