Mastering the Middleware Muddle

Successful integration projects require a strategy to manage silos of middleware spread across organizations.

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"Data cleansing is really helpful when working with fields that are human-entered. Do you know how many ways people can misspell erythromycin?" quips Todd.

Eric Peebles, lead architect for the city of Chicago's business information systems (BIS) group, suggests sending developers and architects out to listen in on department meetings.

"An architect knows the technology stack and is very good at finding a solution to a set of requirements," says Peebles. "So we invest the architect in the business side. After they understand the politics, the culture and the goals of a particular group, they're able to relate the technology better to business process."

For instance, says Peebles, the Chicago Department of Public Health wanted to be able to track disease trends in the city. So last year, the architects created a geographic information system (GIS) that's accessible via the city's BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic portal, by adding HL7 adapters from iWay Software Inc. to connect to area hospitals.

Also last year, the Chicago BIS group decided to adopt a Web services strategy so that agencies could more easily change and add functions to their systems. With the installation of BEA's AquaLogic ESB, the architects hope to empower end users to make many of their own application changes by reorchestrating the Web services and business rules.

2. Look for the most dysfunctional processes. "We tackled the customer service data first, because every agency in the city wanted it and they couldn't get to it," says Harvey. "We took the least accessible data in the city and made it the most accessible data in the city. People noticed that."

An integration strategy should focus first on those problem processes that concern the most people or have the greatest effect on the bottom line.

For R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich.-based provider of market data and intelligence to the automotive industry, the first -- and biggest -- Web services integration project was aimed at getting the company's product to market faster.

Polk produces industry information and analysis by taking raw data from 240 external sources -- such as auto manufacturers and state motor vehicle departments -- and transforming it into data marts and research reports that are purchased by automakers, auto dealers, insurance companies and other market research firms.

Polk used to process that data manually -- workers entered data updates, and the updates were processed in batches. To speed up the process and get fresher data to customers, Polk created a Web services-based system using Tibco Software Inc.'s BusinessWorks ESB.

The economic importance of the data integration project made it a good one on which to create a new architecture, says Polk CIO Kevin Vasconi.

Polk is now looking at how it can leverage the ESB to integrate internal legacy systems for additional business benefit. It's an approach that Vasconi urges other CIOs to adopt.

"Look for where the business value is," he advises. "To do it on something that doesn't mean anything to the business -- that's just a computer science project."

3. Create an integration competency center. Integration projects typically cross multiple applications and IT departments, requiring collaboration among different groups. An integration competency center -- a team of several different IT and business specialists -- can help streamline management of integration projects.

An integration competency center's job is to document the protocols, data formats, interfaces and applications that make up the enterprise architecture. It can then help other departments purchase products that will support that architecture and oversee a standard enterprise vocabulary -- or metadata -- of all the data formats and their definitions.

Such a team may range from a handful of people to 20 or more when a big project is under way, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Roy Schulte. It may include database administrators, programmers and integration architects, as well as business people who understand the business processes and applications involved in the integration.

Integration-related projects in the District of Columbia are overseen by an enterprise architecture (EA) review board that polices all purchases of middleware and applications that will need to be integrated. All potential products have to conform to the requirements of the EA plan in order to be funded.

"We do a rigorous standardization of products, supported by enterprise licenses to drive the costs down," says Harvey, noting that agencies are encouraged by the cheaper enterprise pricing to use the existing products.

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