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Multi-platform strategy, and the case to master it
Aditya Srivastava & Rajat Bhargav
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
A Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) Application Platform, or simply platform, is an infrastructural software for building composite applications. A platform integrates an application server which manages user requests, data access, and business logic with portal servers and integration or business process management servers. Some advanced platforms even include the user portal. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) vendors have been rolling out their platforms in recent years.

In today’s global business environment, the real-time enterprise must bring all of its data and processes together if it is to meet the dynamic needs for visibility, planning, collaboration, and execution in the extended supply chain. Even with the introduction of modern ERP systems, companies have grappled with finding easy ways to implement new business processes and integrate their data and legacy systems into the chosen vendor’s platform.

Obstacles to platform unification
The biggest hindrance is also the very problem that the platforms are meant to address. The IT landscape in any organization has multiple systems utilizing multiple technologies provided by multiple vendors. This diversity has its roots in the path to automation as well as the unique needs of an organization. This results in multiple systems and at the very least, multiple instances. Since all organizations take different paths to grow and have different business models, this diversity is unlikely to go away, and for a good reason. Corporations have to continually reinvent their processes to keep pace with the changing consumer demands.

Depending on how a company differentiates itself, it might have unique and best-of-breed systems to support certain functions. Effective process management requires close collaboration between all the functional divisions in an organization. Implementing business processes is only getting more complicated as ‘collaboration’ is extended beyond the four walls of the enterprise’s own operation. A company is not only interested in integrating its own data and legacy systems into its ERP system, but also in integrating those of its trading partners. In such an environment, platform diversity is a given exogenous factor that the company has to accept and surmount. The trend to collaborate with key customers, suppliers, and supply chain partners is only going to increase, given the geographic spread of modern corporations and the agility required to survive in the marketplace.

The last decade has seen an explosive rise in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) which is likely to continue as international trade offers vast consolidation opportunities at a global scale. Even if initially a carefully considered choice of platform is made, changes might be required as a result of M&A. Platform uniformity is not, and should not ordinarily be, a consideration during M&A. Even if a utopian homogenous environment existed, it would start looking like any other heterogenous IT environment after a few transactions.

So what does one do?
The major ERP vendors have an obvious solution — make sure that everyone is running their platforms. Shrinking IT budgets and the speed imperative make this expensive and complicated proposition unattractive. As ERP systems have added functionality to business process management, they have grown to gigantic proportions, with costs to match. Migrating or configuring new business processes to one ERP business platform is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. In addition, the growing numbers of vendors and the need to synch with numerous trading partners have created numerous hurdles on the path to getting everyone to run on the same platform and to speak in the same language.

The Internet has advanced the cause for multi-platform interoperability, with its common standards like HTTP, XML, and SOAP enabling many disparate systems to communicate with each other. ERP vendors have integrated these technologies into their business platforms and extended them even further into supply chain management solutions, creating more opportunities to have a single ERP business platform controlling all aspects of the supply chain. Technology advancements such as Web services and service-oriented architecture (SOA) have become the new rallying cries of these vendors.

But, still missing from their picture is the true ability to build service-based applications that can work together regardless of which SOA-based business platform they have been built on and which platform they were designed to run on. In short, they still lack multi-platform interoperability.

Benefits of multi-platform interoperability
A successful SOA-based platform with multi-platform interoperability is based on the concept of a loosely coupled, service-based architecture and is built using XML as a fundamental basis for modeling business processes, document representation, business logic, events and exceptions, workflows, and user interfaces in a unified and integrated environment. Such a platform enables easy plug-and-play of business components, exposure of legacy-systems functionality through Web services, ease of integration, fast reconfiguration of business processes and low cost of upgrades and maintenance.

Multi-platform interoperability requires access to ERP vendors’ SOA-based business platforms and ability to integrate their functionality, regardless of how it was created or where it was designed to run.

Such an approach imparts agility to a company’s IT infrastructure. Changing business needs, the high cost of managing IT, and integration of disparate data and applications can all be addressed by using the multi-platform approach. The monolithic ERP systems become less of a problem.

Technology vendors like Microsoft and IBM have been working towards general purpose platforms that have wide applicability. There are domain specific SOA platforms too. For example, the supply chain focused platform from i2 Technologies. Domain specific platforms have functions and models that allow for easier and quicker solution to problems in their domain.

Service-oriented architectures make it work.
Traditional systems require that business processes adapt to the software. Because a business platform built on SOA supports extensible workflows that can be tailored to business needs quickly, it is the software that adapts to the business process, rather than the other way around. This creates a more agile, responsive enterprise.

It is our belief that the move to SOA by ERP vendors is decidedly a very good trend. However, for reasons stated earlier, it is not practical to assume either of them as a panacea. A multi-platform approach is merely a natural consequence of the multi-vendor IT landscape in most organizations.

Additional advantages of interoperability
A few of the additional advantages of a multi-platform approach are:
*It avoids single vendor lock-in.
*It effectively uses the ERP services from ERP vendors’ business platforms. Because they are built on SOA, they can be decomposed and exposed as a suite of smaller Web services.
*It shortens development cycles for new business processes because you can take workflows and libraries that were written on one business platform and reuse them with another business platform.
*Best-of-breed platforms designed for ERP systems and for supply chain management can coexist and leverage each other’s capabilities.

To summarize, by utilizing a business platform that is interoperable with multiple ERP platforms an organization can realize the promise of SOA and Web services. The result is lower cost of ownership, easy upgrades, and most importantly the flexibility of a modular IT infrastructure that can keep up with the speed of business innovation.

The author is Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, i2 Technologies, and Rajat Bhargav, Director - solution strategy, i2 Technologies. He can be reached at Aditya_Srivastava@i2.com
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