Application integration aspirations

Business process management (BPM) is like Hush Puppies shoes -- an old standby that periodically experiences a burst of recognition.

Today, BPM is back in vogue, with a twist. It's no longer the sole domain of pure-play BPM vendors such as Staffware PLC, Metastorm, Intalio Inc. and Fuego Inc. Enterprise application integration (EAI), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) vendors have bolstered their suites with tools for analyzing and modeling business processes. These BPM add-ons, for the most part, aren't as advanced as tools from the purists, but the suite vendors are betting that users are willing to sacrifice functionality for familiarity and ease of integration.

BPM is about analyzing and retooling the way business gets done. Examples of business processes are handling a customer service request from report to resolution and "lead to order" -- the steps from receiving a sales lead through completing a sales order.

Trapped in a pinched economy, companies today are scrutinizing such processes, hoping to squeeze out inefficiencies by automating manual tasks.

"It's almost scary the way the terminology business process is reoccurring, at a force almost stronger than during the heyday of ERP," says Bernhard Borges, managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting.

On the business software side, PeopleSoft Inc. early this year unveiled messaging middleware called PeopleSoft Inc. Integration Broker for executing business processes across applications. CRM vendor Siebel Systems Inc. this spring announced Universal Application Network, which includes a library of industry-specific business process templates and a design tool for modeling and configuring business process workflows.

But the most buzz has come from the EAI side. WebMethods Inc. offers business process modeling and management functions with its webMethods Business Integrator. Competitor Vitria Technology Inc. includes tools for modeling, automating and analyzing business processes in its BusinessWare integration platform. SeeBeyond Corp. has its e-Insight Business Process Manager, and IBM added BPM to its integration arsenal last year when it purchased CrossWorlds Software Inc.

Integrating processes

Coupling BPM and EAI tools provides a flexible way of linking applications and different parts of a customer's supply chain independent of the applications being connected, says Paraic Sweeney, vice president of marketing for IBM's software solutions and strategy division. This, he says, is "a bridge between the business issues and the technology that underpins it." A business user can describe a business process, and then an application developer can structure the links needed to execute the process from within the same application.

That strategy is resonating with some users. Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. went through a lengthy selection process to find an application-integration platform that also handled BPM. "We thought about where we were going in the future, not that we necessarily needed all of the pieces immediately," says Bob Wills, integration architect at Smurfit-Stone.

The Chicago packaging manufacturer had an immediate need to link applications so it could share information among its 350 paper mills and manufacturing plants. Scattered locations need to funnel financial information to Smurfit-Stone headquarters. In addition, the mills and plants need to swap inventory and order information so the mills know what kind of paper materials to manufacture and the plants know when their supplies are en route, Wills says.

Smurfit-Stone selected SeeBeyond's e-Gate Integrator messaging middleware and e-Insight BPM modules. Building a hub-and-spoke integration model with SeeBeyond's tools eliminates dozens of point-to-point application hooks, Wills says.

The SeeBeyond software will also provide future efficiencies. Today, Smurfit-Stone uses electronic data interchange (EDI) with some of its largest customers. But EDI is out of range for its smaller partners, many of which fax their orders. With SeeBeyond's software, Smurfit-Stone will be able to swap order and shipping information electronically, without EDI or faxes, while offering more flexible electronic payment options and more efficient transportation processes.

Indeed, today's collaboration-driven transactions are mired in the process. A complex financial transaction might encompass 100 processes. Executing them, including manual portions, requires application integration and BPM. "Anything meaningful in terms of a transaction includes a workflow," Borges says. "It's fairly natural to start looking at business process and integration as a single entity, or at least as something very closely related."

But Darcy Fowkes, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc., warns users not to expect the most robust BPM functionality from integration vendors that "don't have the depth of knowledge into processes that the business process management folks have." Still, Fowkes says she understands the appeal of consolidated EAI and BPM platforms: "You can see how the integrators are saying, 'I'm already exposing it; let me just take it to the next layer.' You can see why the customers are saying, 'But I already have webMethods installed. Why do I want to go through the process of putting something else on top?'"

Companies can take advantage of integrated software but shouldn't expect one person to do both EAI and BPM. One is a messaging platform with data normalization and metatagging capabilities, while the other is about business logic, Borges says.

BPM isn't a trivial exercise, he stresses. It takes a lot of enterprise soul-searching to choose a platform, and the stakes are high. "Two or three years ago, failure was considered a learning experience. Today, failure is basically bankruptcy," he says.

This story, "Application integration aspirations" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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