Middleware Contexts: Text and integrating e-business applications

The Need for Integration

Enterprises are typically comprised of hundreds if not thousands of applications that are custom-built, acquired from a third-party, part of a legacy system, or a combination thereof, operating in multiple tiers of different operating system platforms. It is not uncommon to find an enterprise that has 30 different Websites, three instances of SAP and countless departmental solutions.

We may be tempted to ask: How do businesses allow themselves to get into such a mess? Shouldn’t any CIO of such an enterprise spaghetti architecture be fired? Well, like in most cases things happen for a reason.

First of all, writing business applications is hard. Creating a single, big application to run a complete business is next to impossible. The ERP vendors have had some success at creating larger-than-ever business applications. The reality, though, is that even the heavyweights like SAP, Oracle, Peoplesoft and the like only perform a fraction of the business functions required in a typical enterprise. We can see this easily by the fact that ERP systems are one of the most popular integration points in today’s enterprises.

Second, spreading business functions across multiple applications provides the business with the flexibility to select the “best” accounting package, the “best” customer relationship management or the order processing system that best suits the business’ needs. One-stop-shopping for enterprise applications is usually not what IT organizations are interested in, nor is possible given the number individual business requirements.

Vendors have learned to cater to this preference and offer focused applications around a specific core function. However, the ever-present urge to add new functionality to existing software packages has caused some functionality spillover amongst packaged business applications. For example, many billing systems started to incorporate customer care and accounting functionality. Likewise, the customer care software maker takes a stab at implementing simple billing functions such as disputes or adjustments. Defining a clear functional separation between systems is hard: is a customer disputing a bill considered a customer care or a billing function?

Users such as customers, business partners and internal users do generally not think about system boundaries when they interact with a business. They execute business functions, regardless of the how many internal systems the business function cuts across. For example, a customer may call to change his or her address and see whether the last payment was received. In many enterprises, this simple request can span across the customer care and billing systems. Likewise, a customer placing a new order may require the coordination of many systems. The business needs to validate the customer ID, verify the customer’s good standing, check inventory, fulfill the order, get a shipping quote, compute sales tax, send a bill, etc. This process can easily span across five or six different systems. From the customer’s perspective, it is a single business transaction.

In order to support common business processes and data sharing across applications, these applications need to be integrated. Application integration needs to provide efficient, reliable and secure data exchange between multiple enterprise applications.

Integration Challenges

Unfortunately, enterprise integration is no easy task. By definition, enterprise integration has to deal with multiple applications running on multiple platforms in different locations, making the term ‘simple integration’ pretty much an oxymoron. Software vendors offer EAI suites that provide cross-platform, cross-language integration as well as the ability to interface with many popular packaged business applications. However, this technical infrastructure presents only a small portion of the integration complexities. The true challenges of integration span far across business and technical issues.

  • Enterprise integration requires a significant shift in corporate politics. Business applications generally focus on a specific functional area, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Billing, Finance, etc. This seems to be an extension of Conway’s famous law that postulates that “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” As a result, many IT groups are organized in alignment with these functional areas. Successful enterprise integration does not only need to establish communication between multiple computer systems but also between business units and IT departments — in an integrated enterprise application groups no longer control a specific application because each application is now part of an overall flow of integrated applications and services.
  • Because of their wide scope, integration efforts typically have far-reaching implications on the business. Once the processing of the most critical business functions is incorporated into an integration solution, the proper functioning of that solution becomes vital to the business. A failing or misbehaving integration solution can cost a business millions of Dollars in lost orders, misrouted payments and disgruntled customers.
  • One important constraint of developing integration solutions is the limited amount of control the integration developers typically have over the participating applications. In most cases, the applications are “legacy” systems or packaged applications that cannot be changed just to be connected to an integration solution. This often leaves the integration developers in a situation where they have to make up for deficiencies or idiosyncrasies inside the applications or differences between the applications. Often it would be easier to implement part of the solution inside the application “endpoints”, but for political or technical reasons that option may not be available.
  • Despite the wide-spread need for integration solutions, only few standards have established themselves in this domain. The advent of XML, XSL and Web services certainly mark the most significant advance of standards-based features in an integration solution. However, the hype around Web services has also given grounds to new fragmentation of the marketplace, resulting in a flurry of new “extensions” and “interpretations” of the standards. This should remind us that the lack of interoperability between “standards-compliant” products was one of the major stumbling blocks for CORBA, which offered a sophisticated technical solution for system integration.
  • Also, existing XML Web Services standards address only a fraction of the integration challenges. For example, the frequent claim that XML is the ‘Lingua franca” of system integration is somewhat misleading. Standardizing all data exchange to XML can be likened to writing all documents using a common alphabet, such as the Roman alphabet. Even though the alphabet is common, it is still being used to represent many languages and dialects, which cannot be readily understood by all readers. The same is true in enterprise integration. The existence of a common presentation (e.g. XML) does not imply common semantics. The notion of “account” can have many different semantics, connotations, constraints and assumptions in each participating system. Resolving semantic differences between systems proves to be a particularly difficult and time-consuming task because it involves significant business and technical decisions.
  • While developing an EAI solution is challenging in itself, operating and maintaining such a solution can be even more daunting. The mix of technologies and the distributed nature of EAI solutions make deployment, monitoring, and trouble-shooting complex tasks that require a combination of skill sets. In many cases, these skill sets do not exist within IT operations or are spread across many different individuals.

How Integration Patterns Can Help

There are no simple answers for enterprise integration. In our opinion, anyone who claims that integration is easy must be either incredibly smart (or at least a good bit smarter than the rest of us), incredibly ignorant (OK, let’s say optimistic), or they have a financial interest in making you believe that integration is easy.

Even though integration is a broad and difficult topic, we can always observer some people who are much better at it than others. What do these people know that others don’t? Since there is no such thing as “Teach Yourself Integration in 21 Days” (this book sure ain’t!) it is unlikely that these people know all the answers to integration. However, these people have usually solved enough integration problems that they can compare new problems to prior problems they have solved. They know the “patterns” of problems and associated solutions. They learned these patterns over time by trial-and-error or from other experienced integration architects.

The “patterns” are not copy-paste code samples or shrink-wrap components, but rather nuggets of advice that describe solutions to frequently recurring problems. Used properly, the integration patterns can help fill the wide gap between the high-level vision of integration and the actual system implementation.

The Wide World of Integration

We intentionally left the definition of “integration” very broad. To us it means connecting computer systems, companies or people. While this broad definition gives us the convenience of sticking whatever we find interesting into this book, it is helpful to have a closer look at some of the most common integration scenarios. Helping clients design and implement integration solutions, we repeatedly came across the following six types of integration projects:

  • Information Portals
  • Data Replication
  • Shared Business Functions
  • Service-Oriented Architectures
  • Distributed Business Processes
  • Business-to-Business Integration

This list is by no means a complete taxonomy of all things integration but it does help to illustrate the kind of solutions that integration architects build. Many integration projects consist of a combination of multiple types of integration. For example, reference data replication is often required in order to tie applications into a single distributed business process.

Information Portal

Many business users have to access more than one system to answer a specific question or to perform a single business function. For example, to verify the status of an order, a customer service representative may have to access the order management system on the mainframe plus log on to the system that manages orders placed over the Web. Information portals aggregate information from multiple sources into a single display to avoid having the user access multiple systems for information. Simple information portals divide the screen into multiple zones, each of which displays information from a different system. More sophisticated systems provide limited interaction between zones, for example when a user selects an item from a list in zone A, zone B refreshes with detailed information about the selected item. Other portals provide even more sophisticated user interaction and blur the line between a portal and an integrated application.

Data Replication

Many business systems require access to the same data. For example, a customer’s address may be used in the customer care system (when the customer calls to change it), the accounting system (to compute sales tax), the shipping system (to label the shipment) and the billing system (to send an invoice). Many of these systems are going to have their own data stores to store customer related information. When a customer calls to change his or her address all these systems need to change their copy of the customer’s address. This can be accomplished by implementing an integration strategy based on data replication.

There are many different ways to implement data replication. For example, some database vendors build replication functions into the database, we can export data into files and re-import them into the other system, or we can use message-oriented middleware to transport data records inside messages.

Shared Business Function

In the same way that many business applications store redundant data, they also tend to implement redundant functionality. Multiple systems may need to check whether a social-security number is valid, whether the address matches the specified postal code or whether a particular item is in stock. It makes business sense to expose these functions as a shared business function that is implemented once and available as a service to other systems.

A shared business function can address some of the same needs as data replication. For example, we could implement a business function called ‘Get Customer Address’ that could allow other systems to request the customer’s address when it is needed rather than always storing a redundant copy. The decision between these two approaches is driven by a number of criteria, such as the amount of control we have over the systems (calling a shared function is usually more intrusive than loading data into the database) or the rate of change (an address may be needed frequently but change very infrequently).

Service-Oriented Architecture

Shared business functions are often referred to as services. A service is a well-defined function that is universally available and responds to requests from “service consumers”. Once an enterprise assembles a collection of useful services, managing the services becomes an important function. First of all, applications need some form of service directory, a centralized list of all available services. Second, each service needs to describe its interface in such a way that an application can “negotiate” a communications contract with the service. These two functions, service discovery and negotiation, are the key elements that make up a service-oriented architecture.

Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) blur the line between integration and distributed applications. A new application can be developed using existing, remote services that may be provided by other applications. Therefore, calling a service may be considered integration between the two applications. On the other hand a service-oriented architecture usually provides tools that make calling an external service almost as simple as calling a local method (performance considerations aside). Because all services are available in a consistent manner, SOAs are sometimes referred to as “service bus architectures”.

Distributed Business Process

One of the key drivers of integration is the fact that a single business transaction is often spread across many different systems. A previous example showed us that a simple business function such as “place order” can easily touch six or seven systems. In most cases, all relevant functions are incorporated inside existing applications. What is missing is the coordination between the applications. Therefore, we can add a business process management component that manages the execution of a business function across multiple existing systems.

The boundaries between a service-oriented architecture and a distributed business can blur. For example, you could expose all relevant business functions as service and then encode the business process inside an application that accesses all services via an SOA.

Business-to-Business Integration

So far we have mainly considered the interaction between applications and business functions inside an enterprise. In many cases, business functions may be available from outside suppliers or business partners. For example, the shipping company may provide a service for customers to compute shipping cost or track shipments. Or a business may use an outside provider to compute sales tax rates. Likewise, integration frequently occurs between business partners. A customer may contact a retailer to inquire on the price and the availability of an item. In response, the retailer may ask the supplier for the status of an expected shipment that contains the out-of-stock item.

Many of the above considerations apply equally to business-to-business integration. However, communicating across the Internet or some other network usually raises new issues related to transport protocols and security. Also, since many business partners may collaborate in an electronic “conversation” standardized data formats are critically important.

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