Rapid application development (RAD) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) are necessary bedfellows. The sheer scope of ERP requires that the developer develop applications as quickly as possible, given that a typical ERP implementation will not only involve myriad applications but will also require that many of those applications be reengineered or extended to encompass systems of partner companies.
The prudent developer, then, must be equipped with tools that facilitate RAD but that can also meet the challenge of ERP. These tools must be able to deftly interface with and extend distributed systems, be integration-friendly, and offer a robust and flexible platform for interface development. Java not only meets these criteria but also may be persuasively defended as the most capable contender in this area.
Why the choice is important
Selecting an interface development platform for your ERP application design is not a trivial decision. The selection involves more than simply choosing a package that your people are currently using or going with whatever senior management has adopted as a buzzword. Consider the following points to help make an effective long-range choice that will serve your environment and settle in comfortably with your team:
- Strong history in the field: ERP’s rapid expansion, particularly in the United States, has necessarily generated tremendous inertia in business process reengineering, with a specific spectrum of features that are common to most implementations. Application development tools that are specifically attuned to those popular features will be found in those platforms that are deeply invested in ERP technologies.
- Flexibility in communications: The nature of communications in ERP systems requires great flexibility in communication protocols. Applications must often be transparent to internal/external interface considerations, accommodating all manner of routing and file transfer mechanisms. Any successful interface platform, therefore, must be equally robust in both synchronous and asynchronous protocols.
- Elegant architecture: ERP applications differ from conventional business applications in two primary areas—they are integrated and/or distributed. Either of these by itself imposes an intimidating layer of complexity on application development; both at once can be daunting. Applications must have a clean, deft structure in order to function unambiguously and be maintainable and robust. So any ERP application development platform must inherently promote good design.
- Robust performance: Both integrated and distributed applications require a high degree of fault tolerance because the nature of both distributed and integrated applications is that there are far more one-to-many and many-to-many relationships in the transfer of data. That is, there are usually many more points at which the system can break down. The only hedge against user frustration in the event of error is to design a system that can deliver all or part of what is required in spite of system faults. This requires an interface development package that facilitates such design.
- Maintainability: Modification and repair are formidable tasks due to the complexity of integrated and distributed applications. Any interface development platform for ERP work needs to facilitate rapid intervention and friendly testing.
- Well-developed tool suites: If there’s one thing ERP development doesn’t permit in sufficient measure, it’s time. That’s why project methodology, platform selection, and testing philosophy can’t simply be matters of personal preference. Whether you’re developing, testing, or fixing something, you simply don’t have time for do-it-yourself methods. You need tools that will give you every conceivable shortcut to get to a good result. The quality of the development package—its debug tools and testing utilities—is critical. Go with something that has wide implementation and a hefty user base.
Java in the ERP universe
Java meets these standards. It is the prominent platform for ERP application interface, often chosen over the in-house application development suites of the ERP vendor—and for good reason.
One of the first industry responses to the presence of European ERP technology in the United States was to mate the distributed application potential of ERP platforms to the already-developed potential of Internet applications. This was a match approached with some caution, due to flaccid standards and security concerns. But now that it’s working, it’s working big-time—and who’s the leader in Internet app development? It’s Java, the father of the applet. Java pioneered the Internet spot-job workhorse that enables multiplatform user interfaces capable of complex operation combined with extreme ease of use. This makes Java a natural bridge for the rapidly expanding universe of distributed applications that utilize the Internet, both as interface platform and portal tool.
Java has many strengths when applied to ERP. It is itself platform-independent; it is object-oriented, and thus it is flexible and modular while simultaneously promoting robust design structure; it accommodates both SAP-synchronous and SAP-asynchronous communications and so is appropriate for interfaces of varying types; and it facilitates the creation of secure applications that cannot be misappropriated to write data or connect to foreign servers indiscriminately—a key consideration in distributed apps, both in-house and across B2B interfaces.
Other ERP players
If you are making choices for use in your development department, Java merits your serious attention not only for its inherent qualities but also for the incredible suite of tools available that you can apply in ERP development.
The popular European ERP platform SAP (now also widely deployed in the United States and around the world) opened its doors to Java when it decentralized its product. Stand-alone SAP modules and the company’s Complimentary Software Program set up an ideal situation for application developers by providing gateway software into the SAP core system (i.e., the databases, which is what SAP and most ERP systems are mostly about), permitting third-party applications to then take the ball and run with it. Anyone who has worked with Java in Internet apps will quickly see that Java is ideal for such an environment; that’s what it was made for. To this end, SAP has created the JRFC package (Java Remote Function Calls), a powerful and diverse class library that gives programmers full access to an SAP system.
The other ERP superpower is Oracle, and here Java’s available resources are just unbeatable. Both companies have bent over backward to work well together, with the Java 2 Enterprise Edition standard serving as the basis for an Oracle development suite that is all Java, the Oracle Business Component for Java (with Oracle JDeveloper). In addition, Oracle offers Java Server Page Support, for developing DHTML clients (this is integrated with JDeveloper), and support of Business Components for Java (JavaBeans, JavaServlets, etc.) in Oracle Application Server.
In subsequent articles, we’ll look at some specific applications of Java in SAP and Oracle, with specific attention to distributed and integrated application development.
Have you considered using Java with your ERP efforts? Tell us about your experiences. Post a message in the discussion board below.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.