Calling all integration experts!

Remember the old Universal Translator as modeled here by the late Mr. Spock? One of the first (or perhaps future?) examples of integration solutions, and certainly one of the most fondly remembere! But at its heart, it is also an almost perfect representation of the integration challenges today. Many years ago, there was EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) which was all about integrating homegrown applications with purchased package applications and/or alien applications brought in from Mergers and Acquisitions activity. The challenge was to find a way to make these applications from different planets communicate with one another to increase return on assets and provide a complete view of enterprise activity. EAI tools appeared from vendors such as TIBCO, SeeBeyond, IBM, Vitria, Progress Software, Software AG and webMethods to mention just a few.

Then there came the SOA initiative. By building computer systems with applications in the form of reusable chunks of business functionality (called services) the integration challenge could be met by enabling different applications to share common services.

Now the eternal wheel is turning once again, with the integration challenge clothed in yet another disguise. This time it is all about integrating systems with completely different usage a resource characteristics such as mobile devices, IoT components and traditional servers, but also applications of completely new types such as mobile apps and cloud-based SaaS solutions. In an echo of the past, lines of business are increasingly going out and buying cloud-based services to solve their immediate business needs, or paying a third-party developer to create the App they want, only to then turn to IT to get them to integrate the new solutions with the corporate systems of record.

Once again the vendors will respond to these user needs, probably extending and redeveloping their existing integration solutions or maybe adding new pieces where required. But as you look for potential partners to help you with this next wave of integration challenges, it is worth keeping in mind possibly the most important fact of all; a fact that has been evident throughout the decades of integration challenges to date. Every single time the integration challenge has surged to the top of the priority list, the key differentiator contributing to eventual success is not the smarts built into the tools and software / appliances on offer. Rather it is all about the advice and guidance you can get from people with extensive experience in integration challenges. Whether from vendors or service providers, these skills are absolutely essential. When it comes down to it, the technical challenges of integration are just the tip of the iceberg; all the real challenges are how you plan what you are going to do and how you work across disciplines and departments to ensure the solution is right for your company. You don’t have the time to learn this – find a partner who has spent years steeped in integration and listen to what they have to say!

Cloud computing – balancing flexibility with complexity

balance2In the “Cloud Computing without the hype – an executive guide” Lustratus report, available at no charge from the Lustratus store, one of the trade-offs I touch on is flexibility against complexity.

To be more accurate, flexibility in this case refers to the ability to serve many different use cases as opposed to a specific one.

This is an important consideration for any company looking to start using Cloud Computing. Basically, there are three primary Cloud service models; Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS). In really simple terms, an IaaS cloud provides the user with virtual infrastructure (eg storage space, server, etc), PaaS offers a virtual platform where the user can run home-developed applications (eg a virtual server with an application server, database and development tools) and SaaS provides access to third-party supplied applications running in the cloud.

The decision of which is the most appropriate choice is often a trade-off. The attraction of SaaS is that it is a turn-key option – the applications are all ready to roll, and the user just uses them. This is pretty simple, but the user can only use those applications supplied. There is no ability to build new applications to do other things. Hence this approach is specific to the particular business problem addressed by the packaged application.

PaaS offers more flexibility of usage. A user builds the applications that will run in the cloud, and can therefore serve the needs of many different business needs. However, this requires a lot of development and testing work, and flexibility is restricted by the pre-packaged platform and tools offered by the PaaS provider. So, if the platform is WebSphere with DB2, and the user wants to build a .NET application for Windows, then tough.

IaaS offers the most flexibility, in that it effectively offers the infrastructure pieces and the user can then use them in any way necessary. However, of course, in this option the user is left with all the work. It is like being supplied with the raw hardware and having to develop all the necessary pieces to deliver the project.

So, when companies are looking at their Cloud strategies, it is important to consider how to balance this tradeoff between complexity/effort and flexibility/applicability.


What is behind SAP’s ‘go-slow’ on SaaS?

There have been many reports recently on the problems with SAP’s Software as a Service (SaaS) offering, Business ByDesign – see for example the article by Timothy Morgan here.

To summarize, SAP is backing off its initial, bullish claims on SAP Business ByDesign, saying that it is now going to proceed at a much slower pace than originally planned. Of course, the SAP trade show Sapphire, which is being held this week, might provide more info, but I somehow doubt it.

So, what is going on? Why the sudden backtrack? After great trumpeting 18 months ago from SAP about Business ByDesign being the magic bullet for SMEs, offering the ability to run remote copies of SAP applications on a per user basis without having to cough up for a full license, why the hesitation?

I suspect the truth of the matter may be partly political, partly execution oriented and partly financial. There are those who would argue that SAP does not really WANT a SaaS market for its packages to come rushing into existence. After all, from a supplier point of view wouldn’t you prefer to sell more expensive licenses that lock the user in rather than a cheap usage-based service that the user can walk away from at any time?  So the conspiracy theorists would say SAP deliberately tried to freeze the market for SAP SaaS offerings to discourage competition and slow down the emergence of this market.

On the execution side, perhaps it is possible that SAP did not realize that selling SaaS solutions is a world away from selling large application suites directly to big companies. SaaS solutions are low-cost high-volume as opposed to high-cost low-volume, and hence need much more efficient and layered distribution channels – and SMEs are used to picking up the phone to ask someone whenever they have to change something, not a great strength for SAP’s support structure.

Then finally, the financial side. Many SaaS suppliers have discovered an uncomfortable truth – while in a license model the user pays a substantial sum of money for purchase followed by maintenance, in a SaaS model the risk position is reversed, with the supplier having to put the resources in place up front to support the POTENTIAL usage of the infrastructure by all those signed up users and then receiving revenues in a slow trickle over time. Is it possible that SAP just didn’t like the financial implications of having to continually invest while looking at payback times of years? Did they therefore decide to deliberately throttle the number of new customers, giving them a chance to make some money before making more investments?

Maybe SAP will tell all at Sapphire … or maybe we will just have to keep guessing.


Recession pushes SMEs to top of mind for software vendors

One interesting effect of the current economic turmoil is that SMEs have never had so much attention from software vendors desperate to find alternative revenue sources to replace depressed corporate markets.

A common effect of recession is to cause larger companies working off a bigcost base to become cautious, opening the way for smaller, more nimble companies to slip in and grab a bigger piece of the pie. As a result, SMEs are often more inclined to look at a new investment in a recession, making them attractive targets for software vendors.

Take the announcement made last week by software infrastructure vendor Axway, recently merged with Tumbleweed and the now headquartered inScottsdale, Arizona. Axway has released B2Bi Express, a B2B solution targeted specifically at SMEs. Mindful of the needs of this market segment, Axway offers B2Bi Express not only as licensed software but also as a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution.

Most major software vendors now include products designed for SMEs, although in many cases the larger vendors such as IBM rely on partners to fill out their solution sets. I expect to see a lot more focus on SMEs over the coming months – the one warning, however, is SMEs should watch for vendors offering ‘big user’ products with simply a few marketing slides around them to make them look like SME products. SME needs are quite different (eg a SaaS option such as included by Axway in the above release) and need special handling in both product and presentation.


Microsoft moves into SOA as a Service

Microsoft recently made two SOA related announcements:

The next version of Biztalk will have a SOA veneer (commented on by Joe McKendrik ) and more interestingly Microsoft will lauch a  Software as a Service(SaaS) SOA offering.

I blogged previously about how SaaS itself increases the requirement for integration as multiple SaaS based applications must be integrated together.  This has the potential to derail SaaS initiatives – particularly in smaller organisations without sufficient IT skills and budget to deliver on an integration strategy (SOA based or otherwise).

Microsoft is taking a different angle on the SOA and SaaS story by focusing on cross-department integration and attempting to solve particularly painful aspects of the problem with SaaS offerings that will be called collectively Biztalk Services.  In essence, each service hits a specific integration issue which would otherwise require a potentially large investment in infrastructure.  The first two are:

  • Identity: allowing management of users across departments and organisations and
  • Connectivity: providing enterprise style message (pub-sub for instance) across the internet with appropriate security – thus making ‘safe’ exposure of a SOA service across multiple organisations.

Their picks of identity and connectivity for the first two services is smart as both are inevitably part of any cross-departmental SOA project.  The strategy is also smart as it neatly leverages where Microsoft is already strong (at the department level and in SMB) and where the SOA skills shortage is hitting hardest.

As such I don’t think it is necessary to look at this announcement through Google-tinted glasses and disagree with Ron Schmelzer of Zapthink who is quoted as saying:

“I think Microsoft is really rethinking a lot of their server infrastructure because Google is a competitive threat,”

Microsoft is not doubt thinking hard about Google but it is only fair to point out that this is not a market where Google is relevant as yet and it is not a new departure for Microsoft or even Biztalk:  Biztalk was originally about internet-based integration as this article from 2000 shows.


Sofware as a service (SaaS) and the new frontier of integration

A report quoted in Computer Weekly at the end of June found that 17% of SMBs are using more than 1 application delivered as a service.

This, as the article notes, brings the problem of integration back into the frame.  However, the problem is a tougher one in the sense that SMB are typically not equipped with IT departments capable of handling integration projects and are cost averse.

One approach is to rely on your SaaS application vendor to do the integration for you.  As Mike West of the firm that produced the report, Saugatuck, puts it:

“If you’re exclusively on a platform like and using plus other cooperating companies on AppExchange, they have their own platform that offers integration,” West said.

Or to put it another way, rely on a single integrated stack from a single vendor – which sounds rather similar to the old enterprise software vendor approach.  For the same reasons as larger enterprises don’t put all their applications in a single vendor’s basket (functionality mismatch, over-dependence on a single supplier), many firms going the SaaS route will probably want to mix and match SaaS offerings from multiple vendors or combine in-house applications with SaaS.  While SaaS vendors do claim to provide integration hooks, this simply brings them back up to the same mark as in-house hosted applications.  This isn’t any more daunting than the other integration issues facing large organisations –and fit well into SOA programmes.

However, for smaller organisations this may be new territory and they are faced with two alternatives:

  • Do the integration in house as part of a SOA strategy for instance suffers from the problems I covered last time around the lack of support for development life cycle.  For larger organisations with sufficient in house IT expertise, this may be acceptable.  For smaller ones, it is a far from simple decision.  And the decision becomes exponentially more important and potentially painful as the number of applications to be integrated increases the problem exponentially.
  • Alternatively, you can go to a third party integration SaaS which offers to host the integration logic for you – such as BT (among others) has offered since last year.

Deciding which to go for will require a significant investment of time and effort as the decision will have far reaching consequences.