Assembly Required

Internet technologies give application integration new life

Integrating computer systems used to be the plodding work of pushing data from point to point, from one application to another. Thats not good enough anymore. Companies want integration software to map not only the paths that carry data, but new clear and shorter paths for work in a changing world.

The search for competitive advantage in application integration has given the field new luster, even when few examples of ultimate success exist.

Advances in Internet technologies, such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML), have persuaded huge companies like Ford Motor and General Motors to engage enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors to weave information systems together on a massive scale. GM, which announced a pilot project with SeeBeyond Technology in March, believes that the "seamless, instantaneous flow of information" is critical to powering its business with suppliers and customers, and to accelerating its e-commerce initiatives. Ultimately, GM wants to link about 4,000 internal applications using SeeBeyonds technology.

Such monumental stitching work could drive the EAI market to be as large as $30 billion by 2004, according to research firm IDC. The software market alone will grow from $814 million in 1999 to $9 billion by 2004, says Shams Mahmud, an analyst at IDC. The market for implementing that software will grow from $5.4 billion in 2000 to $21 billion by 2004.

But the business isnt expected to look the same when it becomes that large. Customer expectations have changed and competition has emerged in areas that werent competitive before.

In the past, EAI vendors such as CrossWorlds Software, Tibco Software, Vitria Technology and webMethods focused on one-upping each other, but now they are all caught in a larger convergence of business and technology trends, says Peter OKelly, senior analyst at Patricia Seybold Group.

Companies now need to work more closely with their customers through the Internet. They also need to automate their business processes — which can be simple things, such as exchanging purchase orders and acknowledgements, or signing up a new customer. Standards and Web services are being developed that clear away many of the technological obstacles that prevented companies from working with one another and introducing new applications to their business processes.

This has drawn competition from technology companies such as BEA Systems, IBM and Microsoft that want to build the engines that drive e-commerce.

One of the most direct competitors is Microsoft, with its integration software, BizTalk Server 2000, which has been on the market for six months. BizTalk Server is a flexible, open architecture product that is beating competitors, says David Wascha, product manager for BizTalk Server at Microsoft.

Microsoft may have a huge marketing channel, but the EAI market is a complicated field that takes a long time to learn, competitors argue. "Its an XML-based transport protocol," says Richard Kain, a Vitria spokesman. "To send messages is one thing. To analyze and manage them is another."

To avoid becoming commodity parts makers for a more complex enterprise, EAI vendors have been solidifying their hold on niche markets or moving upstream to integrate with applications and platforms that arent going away.

"Our products are baked into SAP and J.D. Edwards [& Co.] Theyre now being baked into i2 [Technologies] and a few others around the corner that I cant talk about," says Scott Opitz, vice president of strategic planning at webMethods.

One area that EAI vendors have tackled is business process management. Since the technology was designed to help applications talk to one another, it has proven suitable for running "work flow" across different applications and departments.

By now, EAI vendors are fairly good at running any given business process. The trick here is changing them on the fly without rewriting the computer code, which is costly and time-consuming. Businesses want to automate "exception" processes — where some unexpected glitch crops up — or bring people into an otherwise closed computer loop, OKelly says.

Managing processes and changing them rapidly will remain an arms race among vendors. The next step is cross-enterprise business process management, says Kate Mitchell, senior vice president of marketing at SeeBeyond. This would enable a company to follow the status of an order as it travels through a supply chain, from department to department, and even through outside companies.

Customers are pushing for integration software to tie together an increasing amount of human work flow and interaction, says Christy Bass, a partner in Accentures EAI practice. The software already does a good job handling data transport, data integration and business process integration. "Next is collaboration, and behind that is portals," Bass says. By collaboration, she means real-time interactions among employees.

And as companies integrate their systems for the sake of their employees, suppliers and customers, they are using portals more and more. However, portal vendors such as Plumtree Software and Viador need integration help to access the content their clients want to publish through the portals.

"We believe the EAI space will meet [those] objectives," Bass says.