Article

Open source integration tool makes custom apps play nice

Jack Loftus, News Writer
Alex Knezevic's IT shop at the Marena Group Inc. was awash in a mix of proprietary, open source and custom applications, and none of them were talking to each other.

One year ago, the Lawrenceville, Ga., medical garments manufacturer was stocked with Intel-based servers and desktops that ran Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. And its staff of 60 had a mix of specialized manufacturing software to push more than 200,000 custom post-surgical compression garments out the door every year.

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From the outside looking in, everything was running smoothly. Product was being manufactured and customers were being served, but on the inside, IT director Knezevic had issues getting all those applications to work together. Orders from customers and inventory, for example, were being manually entered into the company database, which affected employee productivity.

The unmanageable mess actually began a decade ago, before Knezevic was an employee, when The Marena Group first implemented simple spreadsheet software to run its accounting. The spreadsheets begat Intuit Inc.'s QuickBooks, which begat Lilly Software's VISUAL Manufacturing Suite.

That, in turn, was swapped out for an open source application called OpenMFG in 2005, Knezevic said. OpenMFG is an open source enterprise resource planning (ERP) application suite built with license-free open source software components like Linux, the PostgreSQL database and the Qt application framework.

"The proprietary options had become bloated and expensive so we moved to OpenMFG," Knezevic said. "We liked the idea of being able to change the code if necessary instead of having to wait for a revision."

It's an ongoing paradigm shift

The move to OpenMFG was significant because it signaled a shift within Marena from a dependence on proprietary applications to relative freedom with open source, and a tentative plan to transition from Windows to Linux for desktops and servers that is still being worked out today.

"[After OpenMFG], we just started to play around with open source products in general. They were free, allowed for tinkering [with the code], and we could optionally buy support if need be," Knezevic said.

But as the company's customer base grew and its needs became more complex, Knezevic said several custom applications written throughout the company's ten-year history were not stable when paired with OpenMFG. These applications included a custom-built marketing program and a Web-based rewards program for customers, which was accessible via the company's Web site.

"A predecessor of mine wrote a program a couple of years back to process orders and then shoved it into the VISUAL manufacturing suite. I rewrote it to run with OpenMFG, but it was never stable," said Knezevic.

At first, he tried to rectify the issue with a demo of BizDoc, a proprietary business process management (BPM) suite from Netanya, Israel-based Moding. "We demoed that for three to four months, but we could never get it to work. It was too complicated and we didn't have the dedicated resources required to run it," Knezevic said.

Enter Jitterbit

At the time, a private company called Jitterbit had just been established in Alameda, Calif., with the pitch that its open source software of the same name could integrate a customer's ERP, CRM, database and Web applications all under one roof. Knezevic said he discovered the newborn company with a simple Google search.

"What caught my eye was the interface -- it was all GUI and drag and drop," he said. "It did not take long to figure out how the software worked."

But the key to the Jitterbit deployment for The Marena Group was how well it integrated the company's custom projects. The projects included a customer configuration product for unique children's garments and a Web store for online shopping. Each of the projects and at least six more had to be integrated so that changes to one would automatically be updated in the others as necessary.

"It was a real nightmare keeping these all in sync before Jitterbit. There were all kinds of discrepancies." Knezevic said.

Jitterbit's kinks

But even as Jitterbit allowed The Marena Group to reliably sync data, the fact that Jitterbit was a startup company was apparent from its documentation, which Knezevic found lacking the "maturity" of documentation from a more established company.

"I was also looking for [simple mail transfer protocol] functionality so I could get notification for tasks and email," Knezevic said. "This is something I would like to see from Jitterbit in the future."

Overall, the Jitterbit deployment and the use of open source software has been a very inexpensive venture for The Marena Group. Jitterbit's services and support package weighed in at $10,000. Knezevic said he was unable to compare that cost to what similar closed source products would have totaled because he had only tried demo versions.

"I correlate the deployment with buying a car. I tried the Mercedes -- BizDoc -- which was very expensive and complicated. Jitterbit falls into a Honda category. It's not perfect, but it was a worthwhile challenge," he said.

This article originally appeared on SearchOpenSource.com.


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