Cutting connection costs

Traditionally, achieving the truly connected business has been possible only through use of expensive Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) tools, but other options now exist

If you hold an Internet bank account with Barclays, your customer homepage should change along with your finances. Take out a mortgage and you'll see ads for home improvement loans; go through a flush few weeks and you'll be tempted by offers of discounted credit cards.

It's taken Barclays almost three years to get to this stage. Until recently, its customers accessed one of 70 different websites, depending on what service they required. Information on different sites was often inconsistent, and updating pages meant the IT department locating information on one of dozens of servers or back-end databases. "Updating Web content cost more than [updating] direct mail, which is insane," says David Blair, head of Internet services with Barclays Group.

The bank has deployed a content management suite from Vignette that pulls together information from multiple back-end systems into a single, integrated business process. The result is a 20 percent reduction in support costs and a dramatic improvement in take-up of products promoted through the personalised web pages.

Countless custom links

Traditionally, this level of integration would only have been possible using Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) technology. EAI lets companies pass data between multiple legacy and enterprise applications through a single messaging hub, translating data and routing information automatically on the basis of business processes. This is cheaper and faster than building countless custom links between applications -- General Motors estimates that EAI cut its integration bill by 80 percent.

The problem is that EAI can easily have a six-figure price tag, and the benefits only really kick in when it's deployed across a large number of applications. "Integration technology is largely designed to meet the needs of very big companies," says Rob Hailstone, a research director with IDC. "Most companies do have some serious legacy systems, but traditional EAI is just too expensive."

Until recently, the only alternative to EAI was for companies to build their own point-to-point links between enterprise applications. But a range of emerging Web services and Java integration technologies are giving businesses new ways to integrate enterprise applications more quickly and cheaply.

Barclays Bank's e-banking service is the result of using J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) to knit together the front-end Vignette content management system with its existing Epiphany CRM software. The two applications use Web services to communicate with the back-end systems, which include several Oracle databases and IBM Websphere application servers.

Websphere, like BEA's Weblogic, combines an application server with process integration technology. It allows companies to connect Java-compatible applications using the Java 2 Enterprise Edition Connector Architecture (JCA). This type of integration platform is highly cost-effective and gives the reassurance of using open industry standards, says Matthew Young, AirMiles' IT director. The company recently used Weblogic to integrate its account handling and booking systems into the company's website. "Weblogic offered the functionality we needed, and was something I felt would be a platform for future development," says Young.

Web services alternative

The downside is that integrating legacy and Web systems using an integration server is still hard work. "It's an incredibly steep learning curve and there aren't any short cuts," says Young. To complete the project, AirMiles had to bring in consulting from a number of third parties, including Computer Associates, BEA, Broadvision, Logica and Syzygy.

An alternative option for integration is to use Web services to link together enterprise applications. Web services are rewriting the rules of enterprise integration, and the good news is that users don't have to get their own hands dirty. "IT directors aren't necessarily using Web services in great numbers, but the vendors are creating their own integration tools based on Web services, and embedding those into products," says Hailstone.

One of the most exciting developments is the emergence of Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), a Web services technology that allows companies to expose applications as services and quickly create service-oriented architectures. ESB can't match the performance of traditional EAI in some areas, such as business process integration or data transformation. Even so, the technology is ideally suited for smaller companies, or those looking for a quick return on investment. "ESB is ideal for companies looking at tactical integration projects," Hailstone says. "If you want to bolt together two systems for the minimum possible cost, this allows you to do that without any of the complexity associated with EAI."

Dramatically reduce costs
Some industry experts believe that the emergence of Web services and JCA standards will force down the cost of EAI itself. Increasingly, EAI vendors are incorporating Web services into products, along with support for JCA. While this doesn't reduce the cost of EAI tools, it can slash the cost of implementing them.

That's vital where companies have no option but to use full-scale EAI. When WHSmith decided to roll out new warehouse management and forecasting tools in 2000, it was one application too far. "Like most companies, throughout the 90s we'd bought lots of stuff and bolted it all together," says Ian Winskill, manager of the retailer's business systems division. "You name it, we had it -- NT, AS/400, Unix, Oracle, NCR, SQL. The last thing we wanted was to buy more stuff and bolt it onto the melee."

The company decided to build a new layer that would sit in between the applications and the back-office mainframe. An application integration server wouldn't have offered the necessary scalability and couldn't match the functionality of EAI, Winskill believes. "IBM at that time didn't have the process management we were looking for, and they showed us lots of different products that all worked together to do the job," he says. "I'm sure they would have worked together perfectly well, but the idea of it did make me nervous."

WHSmith opted for an EAI suite from SeeBeyond. Unlike traditional EAI suites, this included JCA adapters, which speeded up the integration process and means that new applications can be added to the integration layer extremely quickly. "We've tested the two systems running side by side, and the new system is 73 percent faster than the old method," says Winskill.

So, how do IT directors know which integration approach is best for them? The first step is to ask whether you simply want a quick-hit, tactical project or whether you are creating a long-term integration strategy. "In general, EAI is better for strategic projects but many IT directors don't have that option at the moment," says Hailstone. "In many cases, you're simply looking to achieve the best functionality for the lowest possible price."