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Where XML Fits With EAI

Where XML Fits With EAI

Fundamentally, Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) is about loosely coupling applications and data stores together to solve intraenterprise business problems. Its strength is facilitating the free flow of information from any system to any other system, one-to-one or many-to-many, with each of those systems gaining access to perfect external information in real time.

EAI typically integrates ERP packages, such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Baan, in addition to customer relationship management (CRM) packages, databases, and older mainframe systems. EAI also allows organizations to externalize existing enterprise application information to interested parties, including real-time B2B information exchanges and Web-enabled applications.

XML comes into the EAI picture at several levels, including data interchange, schema transformation, metadata management, process integration, and even message persistence. However, the use of XML within the firewall needs some architectural thought, with an objective to leverage the appropriate XML technologies to address the appropriate technical problems. Complicating this is the fact that XML standards are either emerging or changing, and many enterprise architects and CIOs may consider leveraging XML-enabled technologies for EAI as high risk, at least in the short term. This is not to be confused with the B2B problem domains, where the use of XML is more acceptable (see sidebar, "EAI and B2B Application Integration").

Understanding the EAI Problem
There are three major problems to solve when considering EAI:

APPLICATION SEMANTICS
We know that application semantics are different from application to application. For instance, how you define a customer within one application is very different from how you'd do it in another. So if you're looking to move information between two or more applications, you must account for the differences in application semantics by changing the structure or schema of that information, typically on the fly.

Accounting for application semantics deals with the process of transformation, changing the structure of a message or document that's moving from one application to another. Most EAI-oriented technologies, such as message brokers or B2Bi (business-to-business integration) servers, have some transformation facilities built in. Lately, as we'll discuss, EAI technology vendors have been looking at standard transformation mechanisms based on XML, namely XSLT.

INFORMATION CONTENT
Just as we adjust the structure of information so it fits nicely into the data structure of the target application(s), we need to alter the information content in real time as well. Using the same transformation mechanism, information content within the document or message is translated into something the target system(s) will understand. For instance, while 01/01/00 might work in application A, application B will need that same information represented as January 1, 2000. Other typical problems we need to solve include numeric to alphanumeric, and back; fixed to variable, and back; and even looking up information on the fly for transformation such as finding the current exchange rate from yen to U.S. dollars. Once again, XSLT is proving useful in accounting for differences within both application semantics and information content.

PLATFORM HETEROGENEITY
Finally, EAI needs to account for operating system and interface differences, or platform heterogeneity. Information isn't stored in the same way across platforms, nor are the native interfaces the same. For instance, accessing mainframe information may require a gateway type interface, such as ACCP, where accessing information contained inside a database uses a more traditional database interface, such as JDBC. Moreover, the way information is stored varies from platform to platform, such as EBCDIC or ASCII. At some point, EAI developers have to figure out the best way to interface with source or target systems, and consume information from, as well as publish information to, specific platforms. Typical EAI problem domains consist of mainframe-based applications, ERP packaged applications, CRM applications, transaction processors, and a variety of database favors.

The platform heterogeneity problem resolves itself in one of two ways. First, some EAI-oriented middleware provides APIs, allowing developers to create custom interfaces between the source and target systems. This typically entails creating a small application between the applications and the integration server (e.g., message broker). Second, some EAI vendors provide adapters or prebuilt connections for a variety of systems. Adapters are able to interact with specific source and target systems using whatever native point of integration is available, ultimately consuming information into the integration technology, using a common message or document (e.g., XML). Likewise, adapters publish information to target systems using the same mechanisms.

Integration Realities and XML
Adapters are important. To integrate applications using XML, the applications must externalize the information as XML. Currently, few applications are capable of doing so. To be most successful, either the existing applications must change so they produce and consume XML or, better yet, they must leverage XML-enabled middleware technology and adapters.

XML-enabled middleware technology manages the extraction of information from the source system(s) as well as the conversion of the information into XML (if required) and the placement of the information in the target system(s). All this occurs automatically and is transparent to the end user.

However, XML doesn't make a good message format for information ex- change, either with B2B application integration or EAI. XML is text based, and thus information that would normally exist in a binary message as "512 KB" could easily map to an XML document 20 times that size.

Although XML provides a good point of integration when communicating with source or target applications within or between enterprises, moving information using native XML demands a huge overhead. As a result, most integration server vendors still use a binary message format, either proprietary or open, to move XML data and metadata from one system to another. These systems consume and produce XML, but use their own internal formats for efficiency. This fact is not well known, since most middleware vendors promote their products as using "native" XML, albeit they merely interact with the XML standard.

XML Meets Middleware
Now that we've established that XML is a simple, text-based standard and, as such, cannot provide everything needed to integrate disparate applications, it quickly becomes clear that in order to provide maximum value to the EAI solution set, XML needs middleware (and, conversely, middleware most likely needs XML).

XML's value to middleware is clear. Middleware simply "carries the load." It moves messages (XML documents) that encapsulate or abstract XML and ensures that those messages are understood by any source or target applications that need that information. Middleware may also manage the interfaces with the source or target applications and move information into and out of the applications through an unobtrusive point of integration, such as a database or an API.

Because of XML's value, every middleware vendor, new and old, has declared dominance in the XML space, applying its technology to EAI problem domains. None of us should be surprised that there's a certain degree of "puffery" to these declarations. The truth is that it's not particularly difficult to XML-enable a product. Therefore, vendors were able to react quickly.

XML-enabling a product is simply a matter of embedding a parser within the middleware and teaching the product to read and write XML from and to the canonical message format. In addition, since many of these products already have native connectors to traditional enterprise systems and data stores, such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and DB2, they provide enterprises with the ability to produce and consume XML without im- pacting the applications.

Integration Solutions
Now that we understand how middleware and XML coexist, we can turn our attention to XML-enabled solutions that include the available technology and approaches. In doing so, let's consider the macro problem domains: B2B application integration and EAI.

Within the domain of EAI, XML plays a lesser role, but it's becoming more important. This somewhat convoluted observation is based on the fact that most systems within an enterprise come under central control. As a result, the integration solutions run deeper and may not benefit from converting information to XML for movement to other applications. Typically, standard information-exchange mechanisms, such as XML, take a backseat to native points of integration and binary messages as a simple matter of efficiency when we consider EAI. However, as information becomes less centrally controlled, XML will become more important.

Let's look, for example, at a situation in which an enterprise needs to exchange information between its PeopleSoft packaged application, its older COBOL/ISAM application running on the mainframe, and its new data warehouse. Although there are many ways to approach this problem, most enterprises would utilize some type of message broker to exchange information between the systems in real time, using whatever native interface the source or target applications provide. Although there's always the opportunity to convert the data moving between the applications into XML, binary messages typically provide better efficiency, as we noted earlier.

Although native interfaces currently dominate application integration solutions, we're rapidly moving into a world where most applications and databases will be XML-aware. Therefore, XML will become a common point of integration rather than the hodgepodge of proprietary and complex native interfaces in use today. Taking this reality into account, we recognize that XML is becoming a more prominent player in application integration. Many packaged applications, including PeopleSoft and SAP, will leverage XML as the preferred native interface to their systems. Indeed, PeopleSoft has already defined its Open Integration Framework (OIF) and outlined how information will move into and out of the PeopleSoft application using XML. SAP is not far behind.

Even as developers build interfaces to new and existing custom applications, XML is becoming the mechanism of choice for producing and consuming information within those systems. Moreover, most database vendors, including Oracle, Sybase, and Informix, are providing mechanisms within their database engines to allow them to read and write XML directly from the database.

EAI and B2B Application Integration
Knowing, as we now do, that the essence of B2B is the binding of applications and data stores together to share information with external organizations - typically trading partners - we can see that B2B and EAI are intrinsically related.

B2B application integration constructs the infrastructure that supports the free flow of information between companies. As such, it's functionally an extension of the EAI infrastructure that includes enterprise applications existing in other organizations. The design patterns of applications and data stores in the B2B problem domain are similar to those in EAI problem domains. All that changes is the mechanism employed to exchange the information, which in a B2B environment is generally less intrusive and more data oriented than in the EAI environment.

XML provides the most value within the domain of B2B application integration. Here we typically integrate applications that aren't under centralized control and thus difficult to change. As we've explained, XML provides a reasonably good format for information exchange. Perhaps most important, the majority of businesses can agree upon XML as the way information moves into and out of enterprises. XML standards provide additional value by including common metadata layers that may exist between one or more trading partners and even standard transformation mechanisms such as XSLT.

A number of new companies, including OnDisplay, Netfish, and web- Methods, are focusing on the exchange of data between enterprises. These vendors generally don't focus on integrating applications within an enterprise (albeit webMethods purchased Active Soft- ware, an EAI vendor, to provide deeper application integration capabilities), but provide technology to exchange information between enterprises. These B2B solutions can consume and produce XML as well as other data interchange standards such as cXML, BizTalk, EDI, and Open Buying on the Internet (OBI).

As we look ahead, the ultimate solution will be some hybrid of EAI and B2B application integration, providing integration within and between enterprises by using a similar, compatible infrastructure. Getting to this "glorious future" will be accomplished in stages. Enterprises will first learn to integrate their own applications, including understanding everything about the source and target systems they own. Then they'll learn to integrate their applications with their trading partners' applications. XML belongs in this mix, but the majority of work in getting to the solution is associated with exploring both problem domains, understanding the requirements, and mapping the correct technology to the solution. In reality, most organizations have just begun the journey down this rather long and expensive road.

XML Standards and EAI
The XML bandwagon is filling up, joined by many standards organizations. These entities are looking to standardize the way we integrate applications, using the common infrastructure they define and vendors provide.

The sad reality is that this bandwagon is overflowing - there are more XML standards organizations than vendors and end users require. Fallout is bound to occur as one or two standards get traction and others don't. The few that appear to be most relevant in the world of XML and application integration include RosettaNet, BizTalk, and XSLT.

RosettaNet is a consortium of product vendors and end users that defines a framework for data and process interchange with e-business. Primarily organized for the high-tech industry, RosettaNet outlines standard messaged data using XML as well as standardized process flows to react to standard business events. What's significant about RosettaNet for the EAI problem domain is that it brings a nice process integration standard for use between, as well as within, an enterprise, although currently this standard is more B2B oriented.

BizTalk is an industry consortium founded by Microsoft to define a standard XML grammar for XML-based messaging and metadata. Microsoft is providing a BizTalk server to support this standard. Like other similar technology, including that from webMethods, Netfish, and BizTalk, both the product and the standard seek to solve application integration problems within and between enterprises.

XSLT seeks to provide a standard XML document-transformation mechanism using a stylesheet as a common processing engine. XSLT is important to application integration because schema and information content often must be altered as information flows between applications (as we've already alluded to).

XML and EAI
XML and EAI are coupled. Application integration represents the larger problem of moving information between applications and data stores for any business purpose. XML provides a common mechanism for data exchange and integration, with a variety of applications supporting a variety of design patterns.

What XML brings to the EAI party is not great technology, but the fact that XML and some of the derivative standards are forcing the EAI vendor community into leveraging standard mechanisms, including XSLT and RosettaNet, within their now proprietary products. What's more, the use of XML within the enterprise allows easy migration to a strategic B2B information exchange platform. It's just a matter of pushing the XML documents to B2B integration servers.

Even with all the promise and "presence" of XML, we've also learned that it's not a panacea. Users must understand the limits, as well as the potential, of the technology before leveraging it for their EAI solution. The real power of XML is the notion of the standard information interchange it brings between one or many applications existing within a single organization or within a trading community. It's just going to take some time before we're able to reinvent our existing middleware technology and applications around XML. But that day is coming - and it's going to be here sooner than we think.

More Stories By David Linthicum

Dave Linthicum is Sr. VP at Cloud Technology Partners, and an internationally known cloud computing and SOA expert. He is a sought-after consultant, speaker, and blogger. In his career, Dave has formed or enhanced many of the ideas behind modern distributed computing including EAI, B2B Application Integration, and SOA, approaches and technologies in wide use today. In addition, he is the Editor-in-Chief of SYS-CON's Virtualization Journal.

For the last 10 years, he has focused on the technology and strategies around cloud computing, including working with several cloud computing startups. His industry experience includes tenure as CTO and CEO of several successful software and cloud computing companies, and upper-level management positions in Fortune 500 companies. In addition, he was an associate professor of computer science for eight years, and continues to lecture at major technical colleges and universities, including University of Virginia and Arizona State University. He keynotes at many leading technology conferences, and has several well-read columns and blogs. Linthicum has authored 10 books, including the ground-breaking "Enterprise Application Integration" and "B2B Application Integration." You can reach him at david@bluemountainlabs.com. Or follow him on Twitter. Or view his profile on LinkedIn.

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