16 September 2013

Two into one will go

Integrating systems used to be an expensive, technical, detailed and ultimately inflexible business. But life and technology have moved on.

I's a changing world out there. Customers are increasingly using the web, not only to browse and purchase products, but also to read the reviews before they do so. It's all about social media, smartphones – and managing opportunities. And while that might not directly impact manufacturers a few steps removed from the retail world, it sure is impacting the way supply chains work – because the pressure on costs, timeframes and service levels is greater than ever.

For the vast majority of manufacturers that have to live with multiple systems – having necessarily evolved their IT estates over time – this fact translates to a paramount requirement to get those systems talking. Islands of information can no longer be tolerated: they're just too slow and inefficient. They can lose you contracts.

Just as important, however, the new world order also maps to a need for flexibility, both in terms of what we might describe as the integration layer and the systems being integrated. Today's and tomorrow's manufacturers must be fleet of foot, so their infrastructure – no matter how heterogeneous – needs to be an enabler of change, not a millstone around their proverbial necks, tying them expensively to the status quo.

Getting heterogeneous systems to behave as one has been hard and costly enough for as long as there have been systems. The name of the game has been tight integration, mainly point-to-point, and, although increasingly standards- and web services-based (remember SOA, services orientated architecture?), essentially inflexible. Making that approach alive and responsive to the probability of change – particularly at the business process level and especially across different applications – has been even harder and even more expensive. And hence the big names, smart suits, luxury cars and Rolex watches that still dominate the integration industry.

But change is underway, most publicly following the introduction of a 'lightweight' middleware (integration platform) package that deals at the business document level, rather than the detailed data level – and, critically, is founded on loose, not tight, coupling. And the developer of said package? Infor, which, faced with an acquisitive management team and significant financial backing in recent years, had to change the way its burgeoning systems portfolio communicated, if the development team was to take advantage of the economies of scale.

That's essentially the Infor marketing machine message, and it does stand some scrutiny. Infor business consulting director Phil Lewis describes Infor ION – which, by the way, is billed as Infor's most successful software package ever, in terms of sales – as benefiting from two clever bits. On the one hand, Infor's applications have been imbued with the intelligence to publish and subscribe to information services using the OAGIS (Open Applications Group Integration Specification) standard. On the other, ION provides an ESB (enterprise service bus) that enables 'lines' of connection to be drawn and undrawn between those applications.

So far, so good, but ION also provides a bunch of generic technology connectors for third party applications not using OAGIS to connect via web services or APIs (application programming interfaces). "Even legacy applications that just work with flat files, CSVs [comma separated variables] or text-based documents can connect, without worrying about message formats. There may be some mapping to an acceptable format required, but it's all XML-based and, again, loosely coupled. So you can just visualise what messages you want to go between systems, draw the lines on our graphical modelling tool and make changes whenever you need to," says Lewis.

Apart from the technicalities of integration, ION also provides functionality at the business level. Most notably, that includes: workflow to support cross-application business processes; event management to reinforce business rules centrally; dynamic reporting and business intelligence, through its so-called Business Vault; and, most recently hooks into Infor's social business platform Ming.le and its mobility platform Motion.

That's a lot more than might reasonably be expected of a conventional middleware hub. It's also a far cry from what Lewis sees as the traditional 'heavyweight' alternatives, mired in code, database scripts and APIs.

But is that a fair characterisation? Yes and no, according to Erik Johnson, vice president of technical strategy at competitor Epicor. While agreeing with the points about tight versus loose integration, he believes that Infor and others (including Epicor) are simply riding the wave of technological development. "What we're seeing is a natural and longstanding pendulum swing between entity-driven and API-driven integration," he states, observing that in the old days, almost all 'ERP' systems used document-based APIs and store procedures for inter-application operations – until database technology couldn't keep up.

Johnson argues that we've come out of the SOA age, which standardised the way APIs work. Even going into SOA, he says, most IT professionals realised it wasn't going to solve the coupling problem. It made tight integration easier, but any change on either side still broke the integration. "Now that SOA has matured, and the industry is moving on, people are coming back to running integration around entities or data, not APIs – and there's your loose coupling. We've had that for years as a foundational aspect of our system. We didn't give it a name. We just used document-centric APIs and business activity queries. You can create any kind of updatable data integration through that [mechanism]."

That, of course, was then and this is now, but Johnson insists the technology revolution, enabled by internet standards, has modernised the concept. "You can get and put a URL, which serves as a label for what a message is and what to do with it; there is the underlying http protocol; there is REST [representational state transfer], now the dominant web API design model; and we have Odata [open data protocol] for creating and consuming APIs."

And so we have 'Restful' [new age client-server] applications and integrations: as long as developers and business analysts follow Postel's law of robustness – be liberal in what you accept but conservative in what you return – then you get flexibility and robustness. As Johnson says: "Put those together and you can create powerful integrations without the tight coupling that caused the fragility."

Hence his pendulum assertion. Hence also his claim for Epicor's hitherto unsung business activity queries. "Today, if I want to integrate with a supply chain partner that's doing some outsource work for me, I would create a business activity view that's updatable and right click and publish it to a web service or website. Then they can pass it back, with whatever values and update my system. And that business activity view can automatically drive a dashboard, a mobile view and an integration point."

What about workflow and business process management? Epicor's solution is Service Connect, which Johnson describes as like Microsoft MizTalk but aimed less at developers and more at business analysts. "So this orchestrates our services and those from others' systems – such as approvals, escalations, conflict resolutions and quality management workflows that may be continuous. And we also have a business process management tool that defines the high-speed logic of the ERP system itself."

All of which perhaps begs the question, why the continued use of object broker systems such as Websphere, Tibco and the rest, which have long since enabled virtual single-systems, using IP architectures?

The answer: it's all about serving the now massive community that's grown up with SOA-based code-wrapped legacy systems. It's also about understanding that there is more than one way of skinning a cat. And the choice of approach often depends on preferences, skill sets and the technical nature of the job in hand.

One thing is certain: whatever technique you choose, integration is not the nightmare it used to be. As Paul Roebuck, sales and marketing director at K3 (which authors the Syspro ERP system and developed its DataSwitch integration tool), says: "The industry has definitely marched on in the last decade and integration technologies are robust, reliable and maintainable, with a wide range of products providing seamless integration."

The choice is yours.

Brian Tinham

Supporting Information


123 Insight Ltd
Epicor Software (UK) Ltd
Exel Computer Systems plc
Infor (United Kingdom) Ltd
K3 Syspro
Production Modelling Ltd
Sage (UK) Ltd
Syscom plc

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