Vendors move toward Internet data integration

As users implement e-business infrastructures and pull their data and applications, it's becoming increasingly clear that enterprise application integration (EAI) wasn't built with real-time e-commerce transactions in mind.

Meanwhile, e-commerce Web sites, digital exchanges and online business-to-business marketplaces all demand real-time data integration as well as a unified face to the Web. The venues for this kind of integration are increasing not only in number but also in business value.

"As companies move toward e-commerce, business needs change and the data needs to be made accessible accordingly," said Amy Hedrick, an analyst at Boston-based consultancy AMR Research Inc.

To that end, a new class of products, referred to as Internet data integration (IDI) solutions, is coming to market, taking the notion of application and data integration a step beyond EAI products and into the realm of real-time e-business.

Earlier this month, for instance, Cerebellum Software Inc. in Pittsburgh announced new versions of its Portal Integrator and eCom Integrator, which can bring together a variety of data sources and direct that combined data stream onto the Web.

Earlier this month, Information Builders Inc. in New York spun off a new subsidiary, iWay Software, which focuses strictly on integrating data sources and presenting them on the Web.

A variety of other vendors, including IBM, Compaq Computer Corp., Merant, Metagon Technologies LLC and Enterworks Inc. are providing software that aims to solve the same basic problem

"E-business integration is about linking new, automated systems with older, legacy systems, because the legacy systems can be necessary to fulfill users' needs," said John Senor, president of iWay in New York.

The fundamental difference between IDI and EAI is that the new breed is built for real-time e-commerce transactions with partners and customers, both inside and outside the firewall.

EAI products, on the other hand, aren't really built for extending data beyond the firewall, AMR's Hedrick explains. As a result, EAI isn't well-equipped to handle security issues, routing, or Internet standards and protocols, she says. Furthermore, the IDI solutions were built to span both e-business and the physical world of commerce.

One customer subscribing to this new breed of far-flung integration is Target Corp., a $40 billion company that implemented Zero Latency Enterprise (ZLE), an integration program spearheaded by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. and Compaq.

The ZLE effort is a rules-based system described as "EAI on steroids" by one Compaq official.

"[ZLE] is the cornerstone of an e-business environment. To transport data across our various databases gives us both speed and accuracy," said Deb Bauman, vice president of development at Target Direct and Target Financial Services in Minneapolis.

The system consolidates existing data, makes it accessible and allows Target to recognize a customer across different channels -- online and in physical stores -- and personalize accordingly.

"Let's say we have a customer who has an excellent credit rating with us and has a Target card, and they have problems with a check at one of our Marshall Field stores," Bauman explained.

"Let's say they missed a payment on their Marshall Field card but never missed a payment with their Target card. [With ZLE], we can bypass our ordinary rules and accept their payment at the Marshall Field," Bauman said.

Analysts say that IDI products won't replace EAI but rather will find a home alongside EAI in corporate networks. Nor are established integration vendors such as BEA Systems Inc. in San Jose; TIBCO Software Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.; or webMethods Inc. in Fairfax, Va., diminishing, analysts say. Each company has partnered or brought to market products aimed at offering an end-to-end solution, too.

"The two are complementary technologies," said Todd Olson, chief technology officer at Cerebellum. "It's conceivable that one of our software's requests would trigger something in the EAI system." The biggest drawback is that as a technology, EAI is still relatively young, said AMR's Hedrick.

"I'm not sure we really pushed the EAI tools to the limit. Very few enterprises have integrated all their applications, so we don't know how scalable they are or how scalable [the newer integration] tools will need to be," Hedrick said.

Ephraim Schwartz contributed to this report.

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