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The Integration Challenge

Developing an SOA-Based integration solution using Web Services

In the early days of business computing, little attention was paid to the concept of sharing application logic and data across multiple machines. The big question faced by an organization was how to develop computer systems to successfully automate previously manual operations such as billing, accounting, payroll, and order management. Solving any one of these individual problems was challenging enough, without considering the possibility of basing all of a company's systems on a common, reusable architecture.

With the majority of operational business functions now automated, the next phase of evolution revolves around improving the ability of these systems to meet new requirements. Information technology (IT) departments are adding new user interfaces, combining multiple data sources into a single view, exploring methods for extending applications to mobile devices, and initiating efforts to replace old applications with more modern ones. These are common reasons given by CIOs for investing in new projects.

The industry also must face a paradigm shift toward service-oriented development and architectures based upon services. While service-oriented architecture (SOA) has been around for more than a decade, the concept is now becoming more mainstream because of Web services and is gathering momentum as the IT world makes the truly important shift from developing new systems to getting more out of earlier investments. Developing services and deploying them using an SOA is the best way to utilize existing IT systems to meet new challenges.

Service-Oriented Development
Complexity is a fact of life in IT, and it presents a major challenge in dealing with business requirements for new applications, evolving existing applications, and simply keeping up with all of the maintenance and enhancement requests of installed systems. Add the requirement of having the myriad systems found in the typical IT infrastructure actually work together to produce meaningful results, and the complexity can increase exponentially.

Now imagine a world in which all applications, regardless of whether new or previously deployed, use a common service-oriented programming interface (i.e., WSDL) and interoperability protocol (i.e., SOAP).

In such a world, the job of IT is much simpler; complexity is reduced and existing functionality is more easily reused. A common interface and interoperability protocol, through which any application can be accessed, also allows existing IT infrastructure to be more easily modernized or replaced.

This is the promise that service orientation brings to the IT world and when deployed in an SOA, becomes the foundation for more easily fulfilling a variety of strategic requirements, including multichannel access, business process automation, and rapid application integration.

The Integration Challenge
How does promise relate to reality though? Integration is required to resolve multiple types of business and technical application requirements among systems that, more often than not, were developed by different programming teams using different technologies and that were intended to solve different business problems. Integration projects have the unenviable job of reconciling the differences between multiple IT systems whenever those systems need to interact, whether or not they were designed for that purpose (and typically they were not). The more quickly integration solutions can be deployed, and at reasonable cost, the better.

Some of the common reasons for investing in integration solutions include:

  • Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A): M&A activity typically results in multiple IT systems that handle similar transactions that need to be consolidated before the business value of the M&A can be fully realized. For example, bank mergers often result in multiple customer systems that may not easily allow cross-account management.
  • Internal Reorganization: Although not as dramatic as M&As, internal reorganizations pose many of the same problems, and they often occur more frequently. Internal reorganizations may combine functions of multiple departments, including their supporting IT infrastructures, such as combining manufacturing operations across multiple product lines.
  • Application/System Consolidation: Multiple IT systems often can be consolidated or replaced to save money, maximize efficiency of IT staff, and streamline business operations. For example, a telecommunications company that has multiple billing systems for wireless, wire line, and broadband could save considerable time and money by consolidating them.
  • Inconsistent/Duplicated/Fragmented Data: Important business data may be spread across many systems and must be consolidated or "cleansed" to facilitate better decision making. For example, most businesses want to give service representatives a single view of the customer, which can only be accomplished if all of the pertinent customer information, contained in a variety of different systems, can be shared.
  • New Business Strategies: Innovative companies frequently implement new business strategies that redefine the business environment and require IT systems to work together in novel ways. Eventually, other companies in the same industry have to adopt the same changes to stay competitive. Classic examples include just in time manufacturing and straight through processing of financial transactions.
  • Compliance with Government Regulations: New government regulations may require redefining business processes to protect consumers and meet new information reporting requirements. For example, Sarbanes Oxley requires significant investment in reporting, auditing, and process improvement.
  • Streamlining Business Processes: Old business processes that required data to be manually entered into multiple systems often need to be replaced with newer systems where transactions flow without human intervention. For example, a Web commerce company might previously have received orders via the Internet, but manually entered them into the order management and manufacturing control systems. Improved integration solutions allow the company to receive orders via the Web site and automatically enter them into the order management and manufacturing control systems.

These problems illustrate that an integration solution is often not as simple as making two disparate systems work together. Because integration can represent a multifaceted problem, many different technologies, products, and processes have been used over the years to address it.

A few years ago, enterprise application integration (EAI) products became popular, based on the hub-and-spoke architecture, for addressing integration requirements. However, EAI products have proven expensive to purchase, consume considerable time and effort to deploy, and are subject to high project failure rates. Also, since most of these special purpose integration products relied on proprietary transports and protocol, integration projects faced additional difficulties and complexity whenever a company invested in more than one EAI solution. Instead of being able to easily meet new challenges and business requirements, they found themselves face with multiple, isolated islands of software, representing additional integration problems.

More Stories By Eric Newcomer

Eric Newcomer is an Integration Architect in the CTO department at at Credit Suisse. Previously he was Chief Technology Officer at IONA and has been involved with computers since 1975 and professionally since 1978, primarily in the area of online tranasction processing. He was also involved in Web services from the beginning, contributing to several specifications and related industry initiatives. Currently he is Co-Chair of the Enterprise Expert Group at OSGi Alliance.

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