Enterprise application integration (EAI) is fast becoming the latest hot ticket for users.
Organisations are buying software labelled as EAI as they seek to pull together different IT systems and make them communicate as one.
This way they can present a unified face to customers and suppliers - even though there might be technology spaghetti under the bonnet.
Take IBM, which says sales of its MQSeries middleware, now repositioned as EAI, doubled in 1998. It expects sales to triple this year.
Dedicated EAI vendors are also seeing healthy sales. Active saw 138 per cent growth this year, and rival BEA has enjoyed an 83 per cent surge.
"There is huge growth in this market," says Mike Thompson, research manager with UK analyst Butler Group. "A small vendor that was perhaps selling a few thousand dollars worth of technology a few years ago could easily be selling $30 million worth tomorrow."
The market is divided into two: point solutions that link specific applications using an EAI architecture (Crossworlds, Active and Attachmate) and a 'hub and spoke' integration framework that links all applications to one central hub (Constellar).
According to Ovum, the EAI market will be worth $32 billion (£19bn GBP) by 2004 - a huge growth from $240 million this year.
Catalyst for integration
EAI may be the latest trend, but the need that it addresses is hardly new. GartnerGroup estimates that applications integration accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of total software maintenance budgets.
What's changed? The opportunity to clear up the IT garage. Users have seized EAI as the key to pulling disparate systems together so they can operate smoothly online.
"The Internet is the catalyst that is driving the whole issue of integration forward," says Thompson. "The starting point for most organisations is getting information to the customer."
Also, where businesses used to look to integration to manage or cut costs, they now see it as a way to increase revenue.
"It is possible to increase the top line by large amounts if you get it right," says Thompson. "It's about integrating your systems to capture the most lucrative customers using the latest interfaces, such as mobile phones and personal digital assistants."
A number of UK businesses agree. Equitable Life Insurance is using MQSeries to launch an Internet-based service to complement its telemarketing and direct sales efforts. Using its Web-based services, the company says it generates 50 new sales leads a week, as well as cutting costs.
Yorkshire Electricity, one of the largest suppliers in the UK electricity market, has spent millions integrating its systems to meet the needs of customers. It is using Transaction Distribution Manager, from Century Analysis, for data transformation, and MQSeries messaging technology to provide better levels of customer service on the Web.
Meeting customer needs
Following its privatisation in 1990, Yorkshire Electricity evaluated all 60 of its computerised and paper-based systems, and as a result built the Distribution Asset Management System. This £42 million system integrates 13 packages and allows easier data access and decision support, not to mention better management of its £2.5 billion (GBP) worth of assets. A hub-and-spoke integration architecture approach allows data movement between the various applications to meet customer needs.
Dan Sabbah, vice president of applications and integration middleware at IBM's software division, says such examples explain EAI's appeal.
"Business integration is critical to our overall ebusiness message," he says. "Businesses must develop ways of going to market to get and keep customers. Flexibility and speed of deployment are key - but without integrated systems, you can't do this."
But the EAI market is still in its infancy, with many businesses still using ad hoc tools solutions.
"The bulk of this market is 'roll your own'," says Rob Lamb, MQSeries business unit executive. "But once businesses see the value of EAI, they are very keen to use it."
All well and good, but EAI is hardly shrink-wrap. Its lack of maturity has led Ovum to advise caution. Earlier this year, it said users should be aware of the specialised nature of EAI skills, and ensure that suppliers provide product development roadmaps before embarking on a project.
"This is a great subject to discuss but a nightmare to do," Thompson admits. "But in the real world, businesses just have to do it."
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