If any company can demonstrate the benefits and pitfalls of enterprise application integration (EAI), it is Oracle.
Oracle now fields -- thanks to acquisitions -- a raft of applications spanning the components of its home-grown Oracle E-Business Suite as well as PeopleSoft apps, Siebel Systems apps, JD Edwards apps … you get the picture.
Starting even before the completion of the PeopleSoft deal three years ago, Oracle execs swore to partners and customers that the company would ease integration of those application islands. And, they pledged a future "Fusion" application set to incorporate "best of" features from all the product lines.
Along the way Oracle, like its competitors, has embraced an array of Web standards.
Partners say application integration within Oracle's own apps lineup remains a huge job. "Oracle has acquired, what, 33-plus companies in the last four years. Platform integration is a huge challenge not only within Oracle but with outside applications," said one West Coast Oracle partner.
The funny thing is, as complicated as its application picture can look, Oracle appears to be doing a pretty good job of tying them together, partners said.
At the Collaborate 08 conference in Denver last month, Oracle talked up Application Integration Architecture (AIA), its standards-based blueprint for bringing these applications into alignment. In theory, AIA will ease integration of outside applications as well.
"Oracle has done better than people expected, actually. There was concern going back to the PeopleSoft deal over how all the apps would work together," said Dana Gardner, principle with Interarbor Solutions, a Gilford, N.H., analyst. Of course, Gardner added, much of the heavy lifting has been taken care of through the adoption of standards by Oracle and its rivals.
"AIA is this wonderful promise -- build it once and AIA will take care of the rest. It abstracts out a lot of the complexity for us," said Karl Buttner, chief technology officer of 170 Systems Inc. The Bedford, Mass.-based Oracle Certified Advantage partner has integrated its financial software products with Oracle's own for nearly 20 years and so has a vested interest in the outcome of all this work.
Thus far he's happy.
Buttner said that while Application Integration Architecture is a work in progress, it is more than just slideware.
"The foundation is real now and that's the common data model," he said. "So, for example, for a purchase order, there is a common representation of an order and how that gets mapped into the various ERP systems. If we want to place or receive an order and find out information about it, there's a data model that says 'Here's what an order looks like.' You don't have to know what it looks like in JDE vs. PeopleSoft vs. Oracle."
Now Oracle is building process integration packs (PIPs) that ride atop that foundation, and it will take years to cover the myriad processes that exist within the applications. These processes include such mundane things as order capture or expense account workflows.
"The reality is that [AIA] is not all here today, but because the foundations are here, customers and partners don't have to wait for Oracle to come out with prebuilt process integration packs. They can do their own," Buttner said.
Historically that inter-application integration process has been very labor-intensive, precisely because standards-based technologies and associated architecture weren't in place, Buttner added. "We very much welcome this strategy to provide standards-based integration that lets us integrate our products with their ERP products."
Jose Lazares, Oracle's vice president of application integration, stressed that systems integrators are a key part of the AIA picture. Now that the foundation is done, the next step is to prioritize and build these integration packs for the various processes.
"We're working with interested systems integrators to take that base foundation and use it to build process integration packs between Oracle's own assets and between Oracle assets and third-party assets," Lazares said.
According to Lazares this layered AIA effort is an attempt to accomplish the same task but differs in implementation from previous EAI attempts like Siebel Systems' Universal Application Network (UAN).
"This is analogous to UAN in that it uses a common object model, but we're using core components based on technology standards. The content we're building is based on Web services and business semantic standards. When you define a document like an invoice, you use naming conventions to name attributes and elements where UAN used its own definitions," he said.
The sheer number of processes that need to be connected is daunting. Oracle delivered 13 process integration packs across several processes in the past year, Lazares said, and double that number are planned for 2008. "If I could do 30 to 40 a year, that's about the right number," he said.
Some integration packs are developed by Oracle alone; others are co-developed with the aforementioned integrators. The resulting packs list for $30,000, $60,000 or $90,000 per CPU. The goal is for the packs never to exceed 10% of the overall implementation cost, Lazares said.
Acxiom uses Application Integration Architecture to help automate the delivery of customer data information into master data management (MDM) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, said Joe Paulek, product manager for the large Conway, Ark., information management company.
Paulek said data, reams of which is handled and mined by Acxiom for various customers, must be presented in a repeatable format and delivered securely using best practices.
"You have to take that data, consolidate it and parse it," he said. The availability of prebuilt adapters to connect the data sources versus hand-coded adapters is a huge plus, Paulek said.
"Vendors may have different outputs and data mappings and best practices around data dissemination, and it's a huge effort to understand that with each new vendor," Paulek said. "It can take a year to migrate that data."
G.K. Murthy, senior vice president of enterprise applications at Sierra Atlantic, another longtime Oracle partner, said AIA is making progress. Sierra Atlantic, an EAI specialist and global services provider, does joint development work with Oracle and has worked with AIA and its predecessor technology, Corporate Application Integration, even before that.
Sierra Atlantic also participates in the Oracle Accelerate program, another part of the Oracle application integration puzzle. Accelerate aims to speed integration with third-party applications and provide lower-cost vertical application entries into small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). (Historical Oracle nemesis IBM joined the Accelerate program in April, meaning that it will help sell Oracle apps running on IBM hardware and IBM services to midmarket customers.)
"When there's a third-party app that needs to integrate with Oracle, we figure out the best way to integrate the processes between those apps," Murthy said.
"The idea is fixed-time, fixed-price implementations," said Walt Zipperman, CEO of DAZ Systems Inc. in El Segundo, Calif., another Accelerate participant that works with Oracle E-Business Suite and Siebel CRM.
"We take the best business workflows for various vertical industries -- pharma, consumer packaged goods, high-tech manufacturing -- and using automated processes, questionnaires and setup tools we can configure and set up the application within seven to 14 days of signing the customers," Zipperman said.
DAZ has done 31 such jobs in the past year, reducing implementation time from 25% to 35%, Zipperman said.
Given the implementation horror stories that have dogged ERP installations in the past year and the continued weak economy, lower-cost installations are attractive to potential customers, partners said.
Still, some Oracle partners who would like to participate in Accelerate and AIA report some glitches.
"We were on the road to get Accelerate-certified. We were told to get one guy trained and certified so we did. They had us do some testing, pick a proof plan, so we did all of that, and then they tell us we need to have three people certified. The guidelines are not clear," said one partner who said he was frustrated by the process.
He thinks the issue is that Oracle president Charles Phillips says the company wants lots of partners involved so Oracle can better penetrate the verticals and SMBs, but at the field and regional levels, others at Oracle want to keep Accelerate an exclusive club. "It's all their cronies," this partner said.
Even some happier Accelerate players say they are on guard against channel conflict with Oracle, where the vendor and its partners will both pitch products and services into the same accounts. "In [some] cases they absolutely compete with us. And we compete with them," said one western partner.