Mohawk Fine Papers builds integration-in-the-cloud

Mohawk saves millions by using the cloud as a central integration point for all its B2B transactions.

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Risk factors

The benefits of hosting a service-oriented architecture in the cloud don't come without risks, and Stamas does have two concerns. One is vendor lock-in. "If Liaison drops out of site or becomes too big, what happens to our intellectual property and the integrations we count on? It's a real concern," he says.

Another is whether the cloud service provider can keep up service levels as Mohawk's transaction volumes and customer base grow. While Mohawk has service level agreements, he says, "the technical details of their underlying infrastructure is hidden from me."

Can they scale effectively? If we're twice as big in a year can they handle the volume? I don't know," he admits.

While Chen says Liaison always has 50% more capacity on hand than its customers need and has a distributed, service-based architecture that scales rapidly, Gartner's Lheureux says the technology that keeps the data flowing is just one part of the business.

Growing the professional services and managed services that make up the bulk of the company's revenue means scaling up people, methodology and expertise. "The cost is not in the mapping tools or processors in the cloud. It's in the people," Lheureux says.

As a hedge, Mohawk retains a copy of all of its translations and mappings. The information is managed using Liaison's Contivo technology, a tool designed for high-end mapping and best practices.

The intellectual property that Mohawk receives from Liaison is better than most others because Contivo makes it easier to redeploy or repurpose data maps in different technology infrastructures, Lheureux says. "It's a unique capability." Nonetheless, porting to a new platform would still be painful. "You can't just pick it up and drop it on another platform," he says.

But for Mohawk, the benefits are compelling enough to outweigh those risks. The low cost per integration and the rapid turnaround has given Mohawk the agility to create new business relationships and build business processes on a trial basis. Mohawk can do all this without worrying about the investment of time, money and other resources required to do the integration work.

Cloud integration

For example, Mohawk had a temporary relationship with a business partner that produced envelopes it needed until its own capacity came online. It was quick and easy to set up the processes to feed them orders and receive invoices back. The partnership is dissolved now, says Hunter. "But the cost was minimal and so well worth it."

Lower costs have also meant tackling smaller projects that never would have been considered before. Stamas points to the StrikeIron integration as an example of this. "It is a small little Web service. The granularity is getting finer and finer," he says, and in the future there may be hundreds - or thousands - of them.

The end of massive IT architectures?

Stamas sees this as the beginning of the end for monolithic enterprise application architectures. "They're beginning to break apart into pieces. Rather than monolithic systems like SAP and Oracle, an ecosystem of cloud services will be interoperating with other workflows and processes that can be anywhere."

For example, Stamas explains, "our ERP is the system-of-record for financials, but much of the functionality resides outside the system." Orders entered via e-commerce websites, CRM, expense management, and HR are "in the cloud," and advanced capabilities such as planning, scheduling, transportation, supply chain, asset management, manufacturing execution and warehouse management are performed outside the ERP software.

Today, he says, 60% of Mohawk's information technology portfolio resides outside the ERP system, up from 10% five years ago. "I see this rate accelerating."

In this scenario, he says, "Your ERP system may call Web services at StrikeIron for a currency conversion, and UPS or FedEx for a freight rate. It may check inventory for an item at a customer or supplier, perform a credit check for a customer at D&B, calculate sales tax from Avalara, approve a credit card payment from Authorize.Net, and more."

As the financial bar has been lowered and turnaround times shortened for executing on such integrations, the number of projects at Mohawk has increased. "There's so many things we can do that I can't keep up with getting the specs out," Hunter says.

"We can bring in a third-party manufacturer or logistics provider at the drop of a hat. That's what's fueling the revenue generation of the company," Stamas says. "If it costs us $1,000 to try something why not try it? If it doesn't work we just throw it away."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch or subscribe to Rob's RSS feed . His email address is rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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