Technology: Integration

Come together?

Phil Lewis examines the evolution of enterprise software integration and suggests how a business can strike the balance between ensuring integration without becoming a slave to it.


Integration: noun,an act or instance of combining into an integral whole.

A lot of people in business hate the software that runs their company. Executives grudgingly accept the shortcomings of their software because they feel they have few practical alternatives. Many have come to think enterprise software is necessarily painful. And that pain usually stems from the fact that systems A, B, and C simply refuse to get along. As a result, pulling disparate software systems into a cohesive whole that serves the business has been an elusive objective of IT departments for years.

But isolated applications written in proprietary languages need not be tolerated. For a business to operate at the speed it needs to function, processes have to be quick and comprehensive. This means the software that enables – and in many cases controls – those processes, has to be linked together. There is no better demonstration of this than the moment those links break, and complex, interdependent business processes grind to a halt.

In the worst case scenario a business may be unable to ship product or to invoice customers. Cash flow can be interrupted. Or the hundreds of operational reports, executive dashboards and daily operating metrics that steer a business become useless. The systems and dashboards all glean data from the diverse software applications the business runs and when the software is not integrated, that business is flying blind.

At the other end of the scale, a small lack of integration can still have profound, detrimental effects. Users often have to move from one application to another to find all the information they need to make a good decision. Alternatively, they can’t search for data across corporate software applications as easily as they can find information on the Internet or use their office software with the same ease they’ve come to expect in consumer applications. And despite the rise of the mobile age, many users still cannot work on a smartphone when they’re away from their desk. These all damage productivity, make it harder for employees to do their job and cause delays in key processes. And they all stem from a lack of integration.

So the question is not ‘why integrate?’ but ‘how best to integrate?’

Lost in translation: middleware 1.0
Middleware began as an obvious answer to the issue of integrating software. It is a technical layer of software that users rarely notice. Like the pipes in plumbing, the function of middleware is to make connections. It enables separate software applications to connect and work together in ways that make them more productive. For example, middleware manages the way data flows from one application to another and the way screens present themselves to viewers across different software.

Middleware created custom-written code that translates from one application to the next – delivering ‘point-to-point’ integration. This soon developed into an array of sophisticated products that often rivalled the complexity of the applications being interfaced.

However, middleware presents many challenges. It is notoriously difficult to install, time-consuming to implement, and cumbersome to maintain. For example, middleware from one leading software provider comes on a set of more than 70 disks. It can take three weeks of IT effort to implement it properly.

Once installed, middleware itself can become just as demanding as the software it is designed to connect. Each time an IT organisation modifies or upgrades a software application, the change may affect the way it communicates with other applications – the integration has “broken.” Broken integration prevents an application from communicating with the other systems around it and, of course, then mandates an update of the middleware.

Because applications from different vendors tend to be updated on un-coordinated schedules, IT departments face a tough dilemma. They can upgrade each application whenever an update becomes available – committing a great deal of money and resources that provide no business benefit beyond keeping the software running as it did before.  

Alternatively, the IT department can postpone software upgrades as long as possible. This spares the investment in labour for maintaining integration, but it also denies business users the benefit of functional improvements that come with new releases.

So how does a business strike the balance between ensuring integration without becoming a slave to it?

Loose fit: middleware revisited
Firstly, the coupling between applications needs to be loose, without sacrificing the security and integrity offered by tightly coupled integration. In the vast majority of cases many software applications can be ‘loosely coupled’, delivering secure integration and meaningful, actionable data to the user.

This can be based on an enterprise service bus (ESB), which transmits common business language documents between applications, based on OAGIS messaging standards. For those less technically minded, picture a postal service sending purchase orders, sales orders or delivery documents around the departments of an organisation because each document has a tag written in a common language that explains what the document is and what it should do. Adding an intelligent workflow to route these documents while monitoring processes to identify and report on exceptions delivers a first round of additional value to the business.

Once this is in place a range of benefits can be drawn from intelligently integrated applications. Users should be able to search for any data element including, for example, customer name, contact name, invoice number, work order, etc. This is currently difficult because most enterprise applications have their own data structures and don’t enable data to be shared across applications unless a master data warehouse is created – often a big and costly job that should not be necessary with intelligent integration.

Proactive searching capability is the next step. Keywords or data elements can be tracked across all the business applications in play at a company. When these data elements pop up, a proactive search capability can then alert the user via email, SMS or even Twitter, every time it senses a process or a status change that involves the defined data element. For example, a salesperson could set up the system to watch for the name of a client. The system would then alert the sales person in real time whenever the company has received a purchase order from that client, has shipped an order, cut an invoice or received payment.

Integration also enables contextual information. By assessing where the user is – in a work process – the system can present information that’s appropriate at that moment. The system can automatically display business intelligence, content, and messaging at the precise time it is needed without the user looking for it; it appears on the screen before the user even realises it would be helpful.

Lastly, integration can also facilitate mobile capabilities. The use of a company’s enterprise systems without needing access to a desktop computer is one of the next big jumps in progress. Completing expense reports while standing in line waiting to board a plane, or checking order status when visiting with a customer from a phone, tablet computer or laptop, saves time and boosts productivity.

Intelligent integration is vital for those businesses looking to gain competitive advantage in the current economy. Moving faster and working smarter than the competition is no longer top of the ‘nice to have’ pile – it is top of the survival list. And in order to do this, software across the business must come together and yield insight, deliver value and drive growth.

Phil Lewis is business consulting director, UKIMEA, at global ERP software provider Infor.