Enterprise applications have the potential to dramatically improve productivity, reduce costs and increase efficiencies in both front- and back- office business units, including sales, customer service, marketing, manufacturing, engineering/design, accounting and human-resource organizations. However, to be truly effective, these applications need to present users with key information from their own data sources, as well as from related internal and external applications. Today's ambitious enterprise application integration (EAI) projects, which aim to link applications by automating complex business processes, are years away from completion.
For many organizations, Web services offer a truly feasible alternative to these custom, lengthy and expensive EAI projects by providing an open, standards-based way to achieve interoperability and customization that is flexible and maintainable over time. Companies across an array of industries face the challenge of selecting the right Web services application programming interface (API) to embed vital information delivery functions into their internal and external applications to establish flexible, standards-based integration that is truly "future- proof."
"As Web services start to infiltrate enterprise IT projects, the versatility of this technology is becoming increasingly clear. Web services are fulfilling their potential as low-risk, high-utility data integration catalysts, but they are also emerging in unusual, visionary projects." - Gartner Inc., August '02
The 1990s could well become known as the "decade of the enterprise application." Enterprise applications - including enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA) applications - have become primary levers employed by corporations to increase revenues, implement cost savings, enhance efficiencies and improve productivity. As companies deployed systems for their back-office and front-office operations, they have often focused on gathering information - ensuring, for example, that customer data is collected from every customer touchpoint, from call center to Web interface to e-mail contact. In contrast, delivering information by the aggregation, analysis, reporting and sharing of critical enterprise data has often been an afterthought. Therefore, information delivery applications have been layered on top of enterprise applications or implemented as standalone "point" applications that perform specific reporting functions such as quarterly revenue reporting and monthly inventory analysis.
This disjointed approach to information delivery has not necessarily served enterprises well. With enterprise application data residing in isolated "information silos," business professionals struggle to perform tasks that rely on information from other departments. Customer service representatives need manufacturing timelines; accounting professionals need sales forecasts; marketing and brand managers need customer-complaint data. These problems contribute to an overall perception among many business managers that enterprise software has yet to realize its true potential. In a survey of 218 U.S. corporations, for example, IDC found that more than 60 percent of business managers placed "enhancing existing applications" at the top of their software investment priorities, followed closely by "integrating internal applications," at 58 percent.
Beyond the enterprise, many operations require in-depth information from business partners such as suppliers, distributors and consultants; but many companies are still forced to gather and share pieces of "extra-enterprise" data - such as supplier pricing and inventory and distributor orders and forecasts - through slow and error-prone manual processes.
To address these issues, numerous organizations have introduced ambitious, multiyear EAI projects for inter-enterprise integration and business process integration (BPI) projects for intra-enterprise integration with partners and other external entities. Unfortunately, these projects, which typically call for lengthy business-process analysis, custom coding, and exhaustive prototyping and testing, too often result in inflexible solutions that are difficult and costly to maintain.
Enter Web Services
"IDC has identified Web services, an architecture for providing application-to-application interoperation, as a technology that will play an increasingly important role in integration initiatives."- IDC, March '02
For these reasons and many others, information technology (IT) and line-of-business managers are increasingly turning to a new, standards-based integration model collectively known as Web services. Most narrowly defined as software components that respond to service requests using a set of open, Web-based standards, Web services offer the promise of fast, comprehensive and flexible application integration, at a fraction of the cost of custom EAI and BPI projects. By leveraging Web services components (or "building blocks") for distributed information delivery, companies can tie together critical business processes using open interfaces and standards to create "future-proof" solutions. Because such components can be easily called by, or embedded into, enterprise applications using standard application programming interfaces, they offer a modular, high-level approach to all types of application integration requirements. In addition, they can be used to tackle smaller, more easily defined integration projects to generate results quickly. As a result, Web services can facilitate and accelerate existing EAI projects or, in some cases, replace these projects entirely.
Applications built using Web services are more flexible and less costly to maintain than custom EAI and BPI solutions because Web-service components can be easily swapped in and out as business needs change. Web services also pave the way toward peer-to-peer (P2P) computing by decentralizing application functionality and making processes more openly available to other applications. When implemented carefully, Web services can also provide highly secure solutions for intra-enterprise integration.
Web services are an especially useful model for information delivery because fetching, transforming and delivering data are processes that can be separated into useful Web-based components and called or embedded within enterprise applications efficiently and securely. When architected in a modular fashion using open standards and interfaces, information delivery Web services have significant potential for streamlining and simplifying application information integration tasks.
Not surprisingly, information delivery vendors have introduced a wide range of Web services capabilities to meet growing market demand. The key to realizing the Web services dream is to choose the most comprehensive Web services API, the broadest support of Web services standards and an open, modular architecture based on core Web services standards.
IT and business managers who are evaluating Web services solutions for information delivery should consider the openness, interoperability and range of control offered by potential Web services solutions. These qualities directly impact the level of integration that can be achieved by the proposed Web services solution and, therefore, how automated, flexible and maintainable it will be over time.
An open and complete Web services solution should provide:
- A high-performance, open architecture that delivers a wide range of prebuilt, reusable information delivery components. The Web services API should be written entirely as a pure Web API, leveraging the latest advances in extensible markup language (XML) and simple object access protocol (SOAP) for easy accessibility. This ensures that developers have the full array of capabilities they require to build flexible, robust integration applications, both within and across enterprises. Such extensibility helps decrease time to market for delivery of powerful information delivery solutions, by allowing easy integration into any application through full support of industry standards. Some information delivery providers may use wrappers to expose APIs as Web services. This can limit the versatility of applications built using their technologies.
- Full control through complete automation. Many information delivery vendors offer only 10 percent or less of their platform capabilities as Web services. Ideally, 100 percent of functionality needs to be delivered as easily called Web services components in order to achieve full automation of information delivery solutions so that information delivery capabilities can be embedded into any application, regardless of the complexity of underlying network and information infrastructures. Exposure to the complete range of platform functionality simplifies information delivery system administration and reduces maintenance costs over time. This is because its complete programmability and automation minimize and even eliminate the need for custom code and because multiple application product versions and upgrades can be supported without the need to re-link or re-compile code. Exposed Web services API functions need to include:
- Object Management - including full control over creating, deleting, copying and editing reporting objects for any usage scenario.
- Delivery -- including support for printing, other delivery channels and internationalization support for consumption by any audience worldwide.
- Viewing - including all aspects of content retrieval, report lists, parameter values and custom formatting for any information consumption environment.
- Execution - including event-driven interaction based upon external events and alerts enabling the timeliness of information to be relevant for the entire Web service.
- User Management - including complete management of users, groups and roles internally or based on standards from other Web services.
- Privileges - including access control rights for structured and unstructured content, authentication and security control.
- Monitoring - including operational tracking and consolidation of process properties and detail across the Web service.
- Scheduling - including control over submitting, canceling and updating job status.
- File Type Management - including selection, updating and specifying current and future report file types.
- Component Management -- including full control over data definition volumes for flexibility in Web services management and administration.
- Highly interoperable solution that is accessible using the widest range of Web services platforms and tools. Needless to say, the Web services API should be tested and proven for both J2EE and Microsoft .NET environments, and it should support creating custom information delivery components beyond the prebuilt services offered within the vendor's architecture. This flexibility ensures that corporations can reduce their development costs by utilizing the full range of developer skills while they future-proof their applications by leveraging industry-accepted open standards. Interoperability should also extend to security and directory integration so that corporations can maximize their existing investments in authentication and authorization systems while calling and manipulating components.
Enterprise Integration Business Scenario
For most corporate organizations, initial deployments of Web services technologies focus on integration of enterprise data among internal systems. For example, a high-end printer manufacturer faces a monumental integration challenge when it finds that its customer-facing portal application lacks access to product-shipment data residing in a back-end manufacturing database. Customers seeking shipment status are forced to cut and paste from multiple portal screens and even gather information manually through phone calls to the company's 800 number.
The company can use a Web services API to implement fast integration between the customer-facing portal and the back-end database. Developers can use J2EE tools to embed a highly functional set of targeted services within the portal application. These services fetch up-to-date shipment information on both a scheduled and ad hoc basis, and then format the data for seamless presentation within the portal. All data access, authentication and authorization rights can be handled by the portal application, which calls and controls services through the Web services API.
This simple Web services integration project could be designed, built, tested and rolled out in a matter of weeks to meet the company's urgent need to present timely information to its customers. In contrast, custom integration projects that seek to link internal applications at the business- process level consume months or even years of expensive development time and consulting fees. By leveraging existing development resources and avoiding the modification and or reconfiguration of existing enterprise applications, the company can dramatically reduce time to market and development costs, while ensuring high levels of security and maintainability.
Today's enterprise applications have more potential to help corporations reduce costs and increase efficiencies than they have so far shown ?- but only if they can be effectively linked with each other and with strategic applications residing inside the firewalls of business partners. Where EAI and BPI projects fall short and fail to deliver their promised integration value, next-generation Web services hold promise as a far more feasible, affordable and future-proof solution.
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