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An Integrated Framework for the Smart Business

The four levels of IT Integration are: User Interaction, Business Process, Application and Data Integration.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

The previous issue of this newsletter explained how business process, business information and business collaboration technologies can be used together to provide services that enable a company to become a smart business. The convergence of these technologies means that business information and collaboration products can no longer exist in a standalone or poorly integrated environment—they must be tightly integrated into a single framework (See Figure 1) that can adapt to changing business requirements and technology evolution. To explain how this integration is achieved, I will review the four levels of integration in IT systems and show how business process, business information and business collaboration technologies can be integrated cohesively in an IT system.

The four levels of IT integration are: user interaction, business process, application and data integration. Many technologies and products fit neatly into one of these categories, but as we will see, there is a trend in the industry toward products supporting multiple integration approaches, and as a result the dividing line between these four levels of integration is not always clear cut.

User Interaction Integration

User interaction integration involves providing users with a single secure interface that enables them to collaborate and share information with each other. This interface should provide a single view of business transaction data, business intelligence (BI) and business collaboration information. An enterprise portal is an example of a product that supports user interaction integration.

A key issue with integration at the user interaction level is that although the business user is given a single view of multiple disparate systems, this view often highlights the lack of business process and data integration between those systems. This is why portal vendors are now adding the ability to support compositebusiness processes that add a business semantic layer between the user interaction interface and underlying business processes. A composite process interacts with both business transaction and BI processes and applications, and thus removes the need for business users to know which physical system contains what business information. This semantic layer also enables collaborative workflow processes to be added into an enterprise portal, which means that enterprise portals are beginning to support business process integration (see discussion below) in addition to user interaction integration.

Business Process Integration

Business process integration allows organizations to use business processes both within and across organizations seamlessly. Business process design tools enable developers to analyze, model, and simulate business processes. Business process automation and integration tools then implement these process models using underlying application integration technologies, which in turn manage business transaction and business intelligence applications, and business user interaction. The key benefit here is that the design process is isolated from the physical implementation by the business semantic layer built into the process models. 

It is also important to point out that business process automation tools not only manage the implementation of distinct applications, but also monitor the flow of business events between those applications, and between applications and business users. Many process management tools are adding performance monitoring capabilities into this flow for analyzing business performance. Business intelligence vendors are also beginning to tap into the business event flows so that their products can be used to manage and optimize day-to-day front-office and back-office operations. It is important, therefore, that the business performance management (BPM) solutions offered by application integration and business intelligence vendors work cohesively together.


Figure 1. An Integrated Smart Business Framework.

Application Integration

Application integration technology manages the interaction between business transaction and business intelligence applications that may reside within or outside of an organization. Many organizations, however, also use it to transfer data between applications. In the data warehousing world, for example, many extract tools (sometimes called ETL tools) work with application integration software to capture data from an application workflow, and transform and load it into a data warehouse. To highlight this trend, many data warehouse vendors now market their ETL products as a part of a data integration suite.

Application integration vendors are either adding business process management capabilities to their products, or are building connections to third-party process management solutions. The dividing line between application integration and business process integration is therefore fading. This trend will accelerate as the IT industry moves toward a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that employs XML-based Web services for managing business processes and their underlying business transactions and business intelligence applications.

Before we move on to discuss data integration, it is important to highlight some key aspects of the discussion so far. The first thing to note is that user interaction, business process, and application integration are being used not only for business transaction processing, but also for business intelligence and business collaboration. Another is that the three types of integration can interact with each other, and can be used together. This is why the marketplace is moving toward user interaction, business process, and application integration software being bundled into a single application platform.

Data Integration

Data integration technology has two primary objectives. The first is to provide business processes and underlying applications with a single integrated view of business information. The second is to provide facilities for copying and moving data between different systems.

Several different technologies can be used for data integration, including extract, transformation, and load (ETL) tools, right-time ETL (RT-ETL) products, and enterprise information integration (EII) software. The technology used depends on several factors such as the type of processing, the data volumes involved, data currency requirements, and the amount of data transformation needed.

Data integration suites of ETL and RT-ETL tools dominate the BI marketplace for copying and moving data between systems, and are used specifically to extract and transform transaction data for loading into a data warehouse or low-latency ODS. EII solutions, on the other hand, are beginning to gain attention as a way of providing a single view of dispersed business information without having to copy data. As discussed earlier, there is an increasing need in organizations for solutions that can exploit business intelligence processing for right-time decision making. Operational business intelligence processing enables an organization to be more responsive. This may involve the querying and analysis of current or low-latency transaction data, BI-driven alerts and automated action taking.

From a data perspective, operational BI processing may be performed directly against transaction data (using EII software, for example), or using a low-latency ODS (created using a data integration suite). Transaction data can be used directly when data query and analysis volumes and complexity are low (to determine the status of a customer order, for example). When significant data transformation and analysis is required, and where some level of data latency can be tolerated, the use of a low-latency ODS is a better approach.

Choosing the Right Integration Solution

The integrated framework shown in Figure 1 should provide business users with a seamless environment that gives them easy, but secure access to the business processes, business information, and collaboration tools they need to do their jobs. Furthermore, the framework should make it easy for IT staff to evolve with new developments in information and collaboration technologies, and allow them to install products without the need for significant integration work.

An integrated business process, business information, and collaboration framework can be built using best of breed-of-breed tools, using suites of products purchased from multiple vendors, or using an integrated platform supplied by a single vendor. Whereas purchasing best-of-breed products may, in theory, provide the best functionality, experience shows that often this functionality cannot always be fully realized because products cannot be seamlessly integrated. Integrating best-of-breed products is complex and resource intensive. This complexity leads to project delays and frustration by business users because products do not work well with each other.

For the rapid deployment of a smart business, companies should consider buying an integrated platform from a single vendor, and integrate any missing features using best-of-breed products. This enables projects to be deployed faster, and provides better functionality and usability for business users. The single platform approach also often results in a lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

As business transaction, business intelligence and collaboration processing become increasingly interconnected, a tightly integrated environment will make it easier for business users to access and manage the many business processes they are involved with in their day-to-day jobs.

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