Winds Swirl Around Business Integration

To chief information officers, business integration software has become as important as the lifeboats on a cruise ship. With so much information, tying old legacy systems to cutting edge, technologically superior ones has become the Holy Grail for CIOs just as it is rapidly becoming the calling card of software infrastructure makers.

But what is this space? What is the current state of the sector? Perhaps most importantly, where is it going? Depending on who you ask, the niche has existed on some level for years, in terms like enterprise application integration (within the network), or business-to-business integration outside the firewall (occasionally known as ebusiness). But experts in the field now say all of these categories may be lumped under one moniker, business integration.

Not to be confused with that other “BI” (business intelligence), the business integration space can be defined as facilitating the ability to link business data — both structured (i.e. supply chain management) and unstructured (i.e. word processing and other text-based documents) — from one application to another under what are increasingly heterogeneous network and computing environments with some semblance of messaging and transaction integrity. It has its roots in transaction platforms, such as BEA’s Tuxedo, or IBM’s CISC technology.

Stephen O’Grady, senior analyst with research firm Redmonk, said a simple way to look at it is that it involves getting older computer systems to work with newer ones. Say a vendor is relying on an old system to make sure its purchase orders go through, but he wants to employ new, more modern technology. He would either need to rip out the old systems and replace them, which is a costly no-no, O’Grady said, or write something in the middle to glue them together — a sound infrastructure to make sure the applications work to relay the right information across the proper channels effectively. This, O’Grady told, is incredibly challenging because of the ever-increasing wealth of information that exists on the systems.

“We now have the ability to use better integration infrastructure for such data as customer resource management, enterprise resource planning and supply chain management,” O’Grady continued. “We can give new life to older applications. For example, large enterprise 500 customers that have older point applications may get these integrated in an enterprise portal so they don’t have to rip and replace or junk it. With business intelligence, we can open applications to people that never had access before. With more electronically-enabled processes and improved workflow, people can manage data easier with less possibility of lost data.

Joanne Morin Correia, Vice President, Research Director and Editor-in-Chief Software Industry Spotlight at Gartner, articulated business integration in a similar manner.

“The bulk of integration is with structured, corporate databases. Look at today’s world. Businesses run on top of data supply chain management systems. All that info sits in databases from Oracle or PeopleSoft…”

Correia said it used to be that structured applications built on top of databases were closed and proprietary systems geared to solve one problem. That was the 1990s. Now, she said, the bulk of money spent on such systems between now and 2007 will be spent on pulling info in and out of those systems. Correia said CIOs are looking at business processes they need to execute, as well as how and why they need to do it.

“The questions are ‘What is the process and is it automated in the system’?. ‘What do I prioritize and what not to tackle?'” These queries, she said, make for lucrative business opportunities with integration software sales averaging $300,000 to $1 million a pop.

Correia echoed O’Grady when she said firms are not ripping and replacing systems they installed just four years ago. Instead, they are finding ways to integrate them with new technologies to reap a stronger return-on-investment.

“We see two markets,” Correia explained. “We see new systems being built and we see those saying ‘I’m going to integrate what I already have.’ Those building new systems are going to build a portal with e-commerce and integrate it to the backend.”

“Why do we need business integration software? There is a bunch of different answers, but basically the more information out there, the more applications that are written to accommodate such things as business intelligence, data modeling, data warehousing,” O’Grady explained. “There are so many mechanisms.”

The Players

There are a handful of huge players in the business integration software space, but consider the old standbys, such as webMethods, Tibco, and SeeBeyond and the younger ones, such as BEA Systems and Oracle. What are the differences? webMethods, Tibco and SeeBeyond are pure-play integration outfits whose focus is taking old systems and grafting them to the new ones. The newer entrants to the integration game are taking new technologies and mixing them with the old to get the same integration results. These are different approaches to the same game.

Depending on who you ask, the newer kids on the block, such as BEA and Oracle, top the charts for application servers and databases, respectively. But they have become increasingly aggressive marrying integration capabilities into their products. Correia said the older integration players need to watch out for the newer ones.

The analyst admires the way BEA is handling itself, particularly with regard to its deep partnership with HP, which she said is proving to be quite fruitful (some 23 percent of its revenues from the fourth quarter came from its HP alliance. The San Jose, Calif. firm recently added total integration to its WebLogic Platform. It now has, in beta test, what Correia said is the only toolset that is consistent from portal to application server.

“The new WebLogic platform isn’t shipping until late spring, early summer, so they’re not tested but [BEA’s] vision is good,” Correia said. “I like what they’re trying to accomplish, and they have momentum with an installed base, but their execution is what I’ll be watching.”

BEA Director of Product Marketing Brian Mulloy is confident in his firm’s ability to deliver practical solutions to real problems, noting that BEA’s “control architecture” appeals to customers.

“Simply put, controls encapsulate best practices around connecting to an enterprise application like CRM and ERP, or connecting to a database, a Web service, or even a mainframe,” Mulloy said. “Because BEA’s controls are extensible, companies can use WebLogic Workshop to design a business process workflow, for example, and with a single click turn that process into a control that is instantly added to their best-practices library. That process then is literally dragged and dropped into their next portal project, or into another higher-level process, or even exposed to a partner as a Web service. So, when we combine a company’s practices in a drag-and-drop way that leverages the practices of their strategic IT vendors we are resolving business integration issues. This is a new paradigm. This is how BEA helps companies assemble solutions in a way that significantly lowers integration costs and lets IT meet business goals faster.”

Meanwhile, Redwood Shores, Calif.’s Oracle announced major integration additions last November at OracleWorld, and recently said its Oracle9i Application Server is RosettaNet-certified, which means businesses have available to them a Web-based tool for managing enterprise application integration, B2B, Web services, business process management and business activity monitoring.

John Magee, vice president of Oracle9iAS product marketing, described Oracle’s approach to integration as such.

“[We’re] continuing to add support for integration including the latest Web services standards, adapters for packaged applications, and XML message-based B2B support,” Magee told “The difference with our approach [and that of old school integration firms] is that we’re adding integration capabilities into the core application server so they can be easily leveraged by the J2EE developers, the enterprise portal administrators, and so on.”

But one would be remiss to leave out IBM from this mix. It is the largest integration software player (thanks in part to scooping up firms such as CrossWorlds Software and Holosofx ), and its focus has increasingly turned toward gluing much of its business integration software onto the WebSphere platform as part of its overarching strategy to deliver e-business on-demand to enterprise customers.

To be sure, Big Blue recently added more tools to WebSphere from Holosofx and CrossWorlds to jazz up its software stack. It has had an application server and an integration server, and doesn’t really fit the model of either traditional integration player or the up and comers.

Doug Brown, director of marketing for WebSphere Business Integration, said Big Blue falls somewhere between the old school integrators and new breed of application server makers. Unlike webMethods, it hasn’t aligned itself with an open application server and unlike BEA and Oracle, it already had integration capabilities to add to its application server. “We’re somewhere in the middle of an upstart and a traditional integrator.”

Correia said Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM’s big challenge is moving their integration technology to their WebSphere platform. She said one can’t bet against IBM because of its strong technology base and thousands of sales people. Still, she said BEA has a lot of open, “green space” it can cover.