Enterprise Software

Talking Shop: The coming convergence of EAI, BI, and Portal technology

The convergence of EAI, BI and Portals is explained

By Tim Landgrave

After thousands of layoffs and dramatically decreased spending on IT initiatives, we may be turning a corner for investment in IT initiatives. Many surveys now show that CIO's expect to see spending increases in the upcoming year of 4 percent to 12 percent. But I expect to see spending patterns change dramatically as corporations start "testing the water" before they dive back into wholesale IT infrastructure initiatives. One of these key spending pattern changes will include the consolidation of once diverse initiatives. In this article, we’ll look at one of those consolidation scenarios: the move to derive more business value from the combination of Enterprise Application Integration (EAI), Business Intelligence, (BI) and Portal strategies.

Divided they fall
Most companies have approached the adoption of each of these technologies as separate, stand-alone projects. Their EAI initiatives have been driven by the need to connect heterogeneous systems at the data or, more recently, process level in an effort to produce the same effect as a homogenous system without requiring a costly and time consuming system upgrade. In most cases, systems that perform all of a company’s necessary functions simply don’t exist so there’s a real need to provide a platform upon which both legacy systems with well established business rules and new systems with powerful new features can co-exist and cooperate. That’s the promise of EAI. Nonetheless, businesses have struggled with the cost, complexity, and time required to make true application integration a reality.

Most BI initiatives have been driven by the need to combine data from the same systems as those that the EAI efforts attempt to connect. The promise of BI is that the combination and analysis of data generated by these diverse systems will give management new information that will allow them to make more informed decisions. As a consultant on several BI engagements, I can attest to the power of delivering this analysis to senior management. But I can also see the folly in approaching BI as a management-only initiative. The information has to move from the data store to the screens of the actual workers who can use the information to affect the way the company operates before the company can truly see the business value.

Most companies would have more success nailing Jell-O to a wall than describing the business benefits of their Portal strategy. There’s a fundamental understanding that employees, vendors and customers all have a need to interact with the "corporate systems" without having the rights to be a direct user of that system. For example, a company’s Accounts Receivable clerk has an ID and password to enable him or her to enter, view, and modify receivables information. But the salesperson for a particular account needs information about that account’s payment history. And you may even want the customers themselves to be able to view their outstanding invoices. In neither case, however, would you want to give these users of data direct access to the system in the form of a user account. In order for Portals to succeed, companies have to find efficient and secure ways to access existing systems to both participate in the business process and report on its results.

United they stand
If companies are already creating interfaces into their systems that allow the systems to talk to each other (EAI) then shouldn’t the Portal be able to leverage those investments? And if companies have invested in combining data from these systems into analysis cubes then doesn’t it make sense to allow Portals to use this data as the basis for their reporting functions? Of course it does. But the Devil’s in the details. Unless the EAI product (or products) exposes their interfaces in a way that a Portal product can consume them, then the work will have to be duplicated. And the BI initiative will have to produce a data warehouse that has not only the data needed by the portal but some "intelligence" about who can consume that data and under what circumstances.

This is one of the areas where Web services will make a big impact over the next 18 months. Every major EAI vendor built its packages on proprietary mechanisms in order to get to market faster. But as Web services begin moving from drafts to approved standards, these same EAI vendors are recognizing that unless they support Web services interfaces to the processes they control, then companies will either "roll their own" or move to other products that do support them. And the BI vendors are starting to recognize that their reporting tools have to support Web services interfaces, and their data stores have to be able to deliver data via a Web services call. As standard interfaces to common business processes (EAI) and the data they produce (BI) emerge, then the Portal becomes the unification point through which the information is distributed to the entity (Employee, Vendor, or Customer) that can make the timeliest use of it. So now the race is on to see which vendor can offer the most compelling combination of technologies to deliver this unified solution.
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