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Pace quickens in middleware strategy game

SAN FRANCISCO - Just getting comfortable with your middleware strategy? Don't. The next generation of application integration will be broader, more complex and more changeable than anything we've seen so far, according to Gartner, Inc. analysts.

Analysts speaking at Gartner's Application Integration conference here yesterday defined a new and ambitious approach to inter-application communications that they said businesses will have to adopt in order to stay competitive. Called enterprise nervous system, the concept expands beyond conventional middleware to include inter-company application integration.

''Application integration will be the most important IS task during the next five years,'' said Roy Schulte, a Gartner research fellow. '' Previous interactions tended to be big, slow and batch. The type of integration that's occurring now is getting much richer.''

Schulte and others said the demands of business-to-business commerce will drive businesses to enliven existing electronic data interchange or Extensible Markup Language connections with software that can kick off transactions at any point on the network and make results available in real time. He cited as an example Delta Airlines, which ripped out a collection of application stovepipes and replaced it with a monitoring system that can respond to weather or equipment problems and relay that information across Delta's network in a matter of seconds.

The system is, in effect, a real-time data warehouse that permits the airline's operations people to make decisions with current information.

But the enterprise nervous system will be neither easy nor cheap to build, said Yefim Natis, a Gartner vice president. In forecasting that more than two-thirds of information in big business will still be processed by non-integrated applications through 2006, Natis said integration will be a slow and unpredictable process requiring complete management buy-in.

'' Ideally, you'd have one central control tower looking over the enterprise, but that is not how your enterprise is going to look any time soon,'' he said.

Natis advised users to proceed methodically, building each new application with an eye toward how it may eventually integrate with software within and outside of the organization. ''Easy to say, hard to do,'' he said. ''This process needs to start at the top of the organization.''

And the technology will go beyond simple middleware. Natis said the enterprise nervous system must contain four basic components:

  • Communications middleware, such as Common Object Request Broker, messaging middleware and publish-and-subscribe technologies, will define how applications communicate at the basic level.
  • Integration broker suites, like those produced by webMethods, Tibco, Mercator and others that will be the ''traffic cops'' of the network, routing increasingly sophisticated messages between applications and middleware.
  • Business-to-business integration middleware will handle transformation and routing of messages between organizations.
  • Platform middleware, or application servers, will delegate and manage the processing of transactions and requests in diverse applications and databases. The key decision factor here is the degree of openness that the vendor supports, said Natis.

Intelligence must also increasingly migrate into networks so that sophisticated messaging processing can take place there rather than in applications, Schulte said. While today's unified ''dumb'' TCP/IP networks are a big improvement over the incompatible mishmash of prior years, they don?t add much value to the integration equation, he said.

Ultimately, software design may transcend organizational barriers and blur the lines between application-to-application and business-to-business processes, the analysts said. But the ability to create such relationships on the fly between temporary business partners ''may not be done in our lifetime,'' Schulte said.

The reaction of users who have been coping with rapid shifts in middleware priorities since the arrival of the Web may have been summed up by Marcia Rodning, an IS manager at Jostens, the maker of class rings and commemorative jewelry. The company is trying to figure out how best to integrate its wide network of independent sales representatives while tying together pieces of four different ERP systems. ''This is very complicated,'' Rodning said of the profusion of middleware options. ''I have to think about this for a while.''


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