One screen, one menu, one application: Call it the Holy Grail of IT management in the hyper-speed world of 21st century business. Application integration is the hot new technological buzzword on the block, and Forrester Research has found big companies are considering spending, on average, US$6.3

million to rope all of their business application logic together.

“”More and more businesses are realizing what they’re really doing in IT is tackling integration problems,”” says Richard Hedges, IBM Canada’s director of information integration products. “”The interest is motivated by bottom-line savings. How do you pull all the pieces together and take advantage of the technology and skills you already have?””

More to the point, says David Wright, Canadian vice-president for integration solutions vendor Citrix Systems, many enterprises have a whole lot of technology that already works; the trick is to get it to work together.

“”I think what’s driving the buzz is the fact people aren’t abandoning their legacy applications,”” he says. “”The old software isn’t going away, so the challenge is to be able to use it with the latest and the greatest.””

For Mercedes Benz Canada, feeling the market pressure all automakers feel to deliver products tailored to customer tastes and right on time, that was quite a challenge. Although its clientele might once have been willing to wait while a Canadian dealer turned to the mother corporation in Europe to find the right vehicle in the distribution pipeline, they aren’t anymore. serving customers has meant finding a way to close the IT gap between For Mercedes Benz Canada and its German parent.

“”The kind of applications they’re predominantly involved in (in the parent corporation) are wholesale, but not necessarily retail focused,”” says John Westcott, chief information officer at Mercedes Benz Canada.

“”Here, we’re in the retail business, so we’re trying to integrate the wholesale and the retail business as closely as possible.””

That meant pushing a whole range of data and application logic to the desktops of retail sales staff at locations across Canada, but in a form non-technical employees could use. Westcott found that was no simple task.

“”We needed to get PC functionality onto retail sales desks, but we wanted something really locked down,”” Westcott says. “”On the other side, we wanted to be able to push all of this stuff out there regardless of the source platform.””

There is more than one way to skin a technological cat, of course, given the near infinite variety of business processes. Application integration projects can range from complete re-engineering efforts to on-the-fly application presentation systems.

“”There really isn’t a single answer to the integration question,”” says Fred Schwering, director of systems delivery and maintenance at Fujitsu Consulting. “”It really isn’t just a question of choosing between completely re-engineering and migrating to a new system on one hand and putting a front-end on a mainframe on the other. It’s more varied than that.””

At the end of the day, it’s not about the technology, but about the business drivers. For Mercedes Benz Canada, the goal was to provide non-IT personnel with the tools to serve customers more efficiently. For another enterprise, the goal could just as easily be to migrate to a less costly platform. In any case, it’s a challenge not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

IT migration and porting applications to new platforms — such as mainframe applications to Microsoft’s .Net integration framework — is an old story and often the only solution to the integration puzzle.

“”The idea is often to port applications into a space that allows new functions,”” Schwering says. “”But it has to be cost-effective and time sensitive.””

Migration was one of the two alternatives Mercedes Benz Canada faced, neither of which was particularly palatable. The first was to adapt and re-engineer its existing set of centralized applications to deliver a new level of functionality to client desktops. That would have been difficult, time consuming and — worst of all — probably extremely costly. On the other hand, the cheap and easy route would have meant just putting PCs with enough computing power to integrate legacy applications on the client side.

“”That would have created an uncontrollable environment,”” Westcott says. “”This wasn’t something we were willing to do.””

Indeed, maintaining control while retaining flexibility is one of the toughest integration issues, and one often forgotten in the rush to pull processes together in a single interface.

“”You need to make sure that corporate information can be controlled from a central point, no matter what you do,”” says Raj Krishnamorty, a partner in Deloitte and Touche’s security services group. “”When you look at organizations and the corporate information on individual desktops that isn’t replicated anywhere else, you have a problem.””

It was a problem Mercedes Benz Canada chose to solve using Citrix’s MetaFrame presentation server. The server provides the integration services for applications throughout the Mercedes-Benz system, enabling 200 retail representatives to log-in from thin clients. The advantage is data remains resident on the server side, while non-technical staff interact with a familiar interface rather than a multitude of individual mainframe applications.

“”This is a manageable solution at a reasonable cost,”” Westcott says. “”The added advantage is that because we put thin clients rather than full PCs on every desk, there is a significant saving. We have no maintenance contracts for the hardware and no new staff.””

If it all sounds like back-to-the-future of IT big iron and glass room computing, that’s because it is, says Wright. But it’s mainframes with a twist. “”It is, in effect, a mainframe model, but with more flexibility in terms of access,”” he says. “”The device is becoming less important, even though we just came through a phase when the device — the platform or the technology — was important in itself.””

Westcott says for Mercedes, it’s a return to more secure, more sane computing.

“”I don’t think it’s a step backward,”” Westcott says. “”I just think we had a little aberration (with the client/server paradigm) along the way.””

The biggest integration headache, however, may turn out to be guaranteeing the integrity of corporate data, says Krishnamorty, and that is one area where centralized control is essential.

“”You could have abdicated responsibility for data integrity a few years ago, but times have changed,”” he says, pointing to recent legislative initiatives in the U.S. and Bill 198 in Ontario. “”The securities exchange commissions of the world are imposing new requirements about the certification of corporate information. Information integrity is going to be a key issue in just doing business.””

It’s an issue Citrix says it has addressed in its presentation server model.

“”All processing goes on on the server, behind a firewall,”” he says. “”All that comes out is only that data needed to populate the client screen. The physical data stays put.””

Yet integrity continues to be one of those things few enterprises sit down and consider when they embark on an integration project, Krsihnamorty says. It’s particularly important for companies that choosing to migrate legacy systems.

“”Conversion of information is a big issue,”” he says. “”People don’t pay attention to how it affects the integrity of information; the focus is usually on migrating and porting applications.””

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