Integration in the IT world has been around for literally decades. Ever since organizations began incorporating more than just mainframes into their IT environments, disparate platforms, applications, data sources, and networks have increasingly added complexity to the IT footprint. Mobile platforms have more recently raised the ante as well. Making all of these assets, connections, and touch points work together to support business goals has become one of the most significant challenges for IT today.
Added to this mix are the effects of online commerce: Business processes must become more automated and responsive to a growing number and variety of events. Massive and potentially disparate data stores must be integrated and rationalized to support business processes in a consistent way to support timely, high quality business decisions.
All of this comes during a time of ever more intense competitive and cost pressures, pushing enterprises to increase their IT agility while attempting to lower the costs associated with their IT systems. Whether you are a large corporate enterprise or a midsized business, one of your greatest IT challenges is, or soon will be, to provide the infrastructure, applications, and data services to fully support automated business processes and decision making – and all within budgetary constraints.
A Comprehensive Platform for Integration
Achieving the integration required to meet today’s business demands means bringing together a variety of infrastructure elements that are themselves integrated. Today, this often means using a platform that incorporates all required functions into a comprehensive set of capabilities.
Somewhat of a revolution began over a decade ago with the arrival of web services, which combined the ability to dynamically assemble applications from more granular services with a set of accepted standards. What resulted were new levels of application agility as well as the ability to better integrate across application silos. While existing multitier architectures (including hardware platforms, operations systems, and application servers) were good environments on which to deploy web services, but they needed to be enhanced to incorporate new application development paradigms, the XML-based standards and capabilities on which web services are built, and the infrastructure to support service discovery and access.
Multitier architectures therefore evolved into Services-Oriented Architectures (SOAs), which allow enterprises to take full advantage of a services-based approach, including agility through the loose coupling of application services, and the easy discovery and access to service components. But SOA is only one example of Enterprise Application (EAI), a conceptual framework for cross-functional integration of systems and applications.
Typically SOA implementations (one instance is shown below) are built from a stack of components that are internally integrated to achieve seamless and, hopefully, trouble-free operation. This high level of integration must also ensure easy installation and maintenance and deliver high levels of performance.
Many organizations are now ready to take advantage of SOA-based architectures to help them better automate their business processes with greater levels of agility and intelligence. Doing this means better leveraging data and events through business rules and policies.
Bringing Business Rules, Processes and Events Together
In today’s dynamic business environment, enabling more and better business policy decisions with greater automation requires assimilating and analyzing large amounts of data obtained through a growing number of touch points. At the same time, more stringent regulations in many industries are creating a need for more stakeholders to be involved in sourcing business rules and evaluating the results of their applications.
Modern business rules management systems are designed to enable business rules to be created, managed, and maintained separate from application code. This means business process owners, analysts, developers, and integrators can collaborate to create business rules using tools with which they are all comfortable. Developers can then create coded functionality and invoke business rules when needed. More active, automated, and potentially real time decision making are the results. These systems also typically incorporate event-processing capabilities, including detecting and evaluating events based on causality, attributes, and timing and abstracting them to a higher, more relevant level. In this way, events are correlated based on their priority and importance to a business process, further supporting active decision making.
Of course, none of this can happen unless heterogeneous and distributed data assets can be exposed and integrated. Unfortunately, data within an organization is often siloed, not only geographically, but also by security protocols and policies, semantics, syntax, structure, and quality. Data virtualization is often used to resolve semantic differences, which facilitates data repurposing, reuse, and operational efficiency. The next step is to apply the services model to data – that is, using metadata-driven, model-based approaches, to create data services that support the creation of an abstraction layer to overcome data barriers.
The Midmarket Directive: Plan Carefully and Choose Vendors Wisely
Creating an agile, intelligent infrastructure to support business goals can seem a daunting task for any enterprise. For midmarket companies, there can be unique challenges as well as advantages. Doing the job right will require resources and skills midmarket companies may not possess in sufficient quantities, but this could in many cases be balanced by a less heterogeneous IT environment that must be integrated. What is common to all enterprises is the requirement that integration be carefully planned.
First, all stakeholders must work together to gain a complete understanding of how work is done within the organization, i.e., what business processes actually look like, which steps are done manually and which are not, and which ones are of the highest priority to automate. This may seem obvious, but many organizations often haven’t done a good job of standardizing and documenting business processes. Midmarket companies may be especially susceptible, possibly because they may be growing quickly. This step can provide a good opportunity to take account and improve operations.
Second, architects must create services where it makes sense, and determine where services will be deployed (internally, in a public, private, or hybrid cloud, etc.). They must then create an integration plan that reflects how services, applications, and people interact. Finally, architects and business analysts must design and create the implementation of business processes and their deployment within the underlying architecture created in previous steps.
The selection of vendors will depend on a number of factors. If, as a midmarket company, you require vendors to provide the planning and implementation services described above because you don’t have the resources and skill you need in house, this factor will be a major selection factor. From the product standpoint, you will likely look to vendors with whom you already work to create your infrastructure. Take special care that integration among all components and the availability of robust data services and business rules management capabilities are part of what your vendor offers. If not, make sure the standards required to bring in third party, best-of-breed solutions into the architecture are supported. As a midmarket company, you may be more likely to be more inclined to lean in the direction of a comprehensive stack from a single vendor – if so, determine that the vendor you are evaluating can scale sufficiently as you grow.
IBM is a vendor that not only has vast experience with all components of an integration stack, but can provide products, services, and business models relevant specifically to midsized companies.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet..