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Thoughts from the Integration Consortium:
SMEs Can Benefit from Integration - It is not Exclusively for the Larger Enterprises

online columnist  Integration Consortium     Column published in DMReview.com
June 9, 2005
 
  By Integration Consortium

This month's column is contributed by R.W. (Bob) Tretiak, chairman and CEO of 5by5 Software Ventures Ltd. and a member of the Integration Consortium.

Historically, integration projects have been complex and expensive undertakings. As a result, the small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) consider themselves excluded, believing only large enterprises can participate and realize the benefits. It is an appealing proposition for SMEs to improve operational efficiency, streamline business processes, maximize their software and hardware resources, minimize risk, etc. by integrating IT systems and aligning with business activities. What worries the SME is the high price tag. With many millions of dollars spent on integration projects annually and more than 75 percent of these projects failing, can they afford to take the risk?

Having spent over 20 years building software companies that provided integrated product solutions, I thought that I understood the value of integration from a business point of view quite well. I also thought I understood the technology we used to shield the users from the complexity of integrating their systems. However, as I became involved more directly in the infrastructure side of the integration industry, I was overwhelmed by the focus on the technology and the use of confusing terminology. I really thought the focus would be on solving integration problems, determining best practices and sharing this information to avoid reinventing the wheel. I can now understand why a company without specialized technical resources avoids integration projects! There is good news, however; and as with other industries, innovation lowers traditional barriers. Integration is no exception and is now becoming a realistic option for SMEs with smaller IT budgets - whether mainstream business, educational institutions, government agencies or even large corporations with limited budgets for integration projects.

For the reasons just outlined, SMEs have avoided the issue of integration and continued to use manual processes to underpin their business. However, it is in these labor-intensive activities that the value integration becomes evident in terms of efficiency, reduced overheads and reduced risk. Since integration often involves critical business processes, implementation of changes to the way the business operates can be intrusive to the organizations' infrastructures and their network of external business relationships such as partners, resellers and, importantly, customers.

Today's business leader is faced with a tough decision: What are the best tools and processes to use to minimize that intrusion while creating value through integration? As soon as this question is asked, he is presented with a barrage of three-letter-acronyms, theories, technology trends, architectural decisions, complex and colorful diagrams and horror stories. "Should we deploy SOA (service-oriented architecture), ESB (enterprise service bus), Web services or the next new, new thing?" The list of options grows almost daily as software companies rush to make their technology the next new "standard" to win the business leader over. No one will dispute that these new evolving technologies are essential to providing better integration solutions in the future, but they don't help SME today.

SME typically can't afford the time to get involved in any of the deep technical discussions around integration technologies. They have to be focused on their business problems which, in many cases, are very similar to those of large enterprises. Since we live in a complex and highly connected world, every company, regardless of size needs some form of integration. They may need to be linked with outside suppliers, central registries or geographically dispersed offices. Today's SME wants a cost-effective, efficient solution that will do the job reliably and probably isn't that concerned about the technology platform. The good news is that through recent technology innovation, integration tools have become affordable and accessible.

One alternative that seems to appeal to SMEs is the license volume approach from Microsoft and technological advancements such as .NET which empower the masses, offering them access to integration solutions rather than just enabling the few that can afford it. Microsoft is one of the companies that has recognized that the real marketplace for integration is not just the Fortune 500 but really the Fortune 5000. Microsoft entered the market with dramatically lower license costs for their integration product, BizTalk. Since its release a few years ago, the feature set within BizTalk has grown to a very competitive level. Gartner has placed BizTalk in the same category as products priced much higher. This increased functionality in BizTalk made it more competitive; however, it also added complexity to the product and to the implementations. For an SME, the added complexity increased the costs for the implementation, and thus the total costs again became a barrier for the SME. Even if an SME could afford the one-time implementation costs, they would require ongoing BizTalk skills to support and maintain the integration as their business changed and evolved. These ongoing costs and complexity remained as barriers to committing to any integration solution.

An opportunity has been created for innovative vendors to create offerings that allow the customer to avoid custom coding and configuration. There are now products on the market that have embedded technologies such as BizTalk, combined with a simple user interface and even taken the additional step of packaging the technology as an appliance. Since these are turnkey solutions, most of the complexity is removed and the implementation and maintenance costs are minimized thus making the integrations affordable. Today's SME can now finally feel confident entering into the process of integration. There are also fantastic knowledge resources such as the Integration Consortium (IC) where the SME can learn the basics of integration and more importantly become familiar with the business opportunities and improvements that can be realized through integration investment.

The IC is a global integration community that is focused on providing a non-partisan collaborative environment where the SME can begin their integration journey. Tapping into thought leadership forums, peer networking, advancements in innovative solution development, understanding best practices and accessing education are areas that IC end-user members, regardless of their size or stature can leverage. The IC offers an excellent starting point where an SME can begin explore and understand the right questions to ask of their internal IT teams and the vendor community, as they embark upon their assessment of the value and benefits of integration for their business. SMEs have unique integration needs and challenges often overlooked by the vendor community focus their efforts and resources for the Fortune 500. However, there are specialized solution providers who do work with the SME community and recognizing this, the IC members are encouraging a .NET working group to identify and create affordable solutions using Microsoft technologies.

The SME community can benefit from integration solutions. There are cost-effective solutions available, made possible with Microsoft technologies (i.e., .NET, BizTalk ) and some of their partner initiatives. Further business advantages can be identified and made possible through communication and collaboration with other SMEs in forums such as the Integration Consortium, and I feel that we are now bringing the buyers and sellers of integration closer together in a healthy environment where the focus is on what works best for business today and tomorrow.

R.W. (Bob) Tretiak is chairman and CEO of 5by5 Software Ventures Ltd. where he is involved in all aspects of setting the strategic direction for the company. With his leadership, 5by5 will continue to provide products that deliver value for their customers while utilizing the latest technologies. Tretiak founded Applied Terravision Systems in 1986. He is a director of ABI Capital Corp., a publicly listed Alberta corporation, in addition to being a director in other private companies. He is also director of Calgary Technologies Inc., an organization that is partially supported by government and private funds and is dedicated to promoting high technology growth in Calgary, Canada.

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For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Data Integration.

The Integration Consortium is a non-profit, leading industry body responsible for influencing the direction of the integration industry. Its members champion Integration Acumen by establishing standards, guidelines, best practices, research and the articulation of strategic and measurable business benefits. The Integration Consortium's motto is "Forging Integration Value." The mission of the member-driven Integration Consortium is to establish universal seamless integration which engages industry stakeholders from the business and technology community. Among the sectors represented in the Integration Consortium membership are end-user corporations, independent software vendors (ISVs), hardware vendors, system integrators, academic institutions, non-profit institutions and individual members as well as various industry leaders. Information on the Integration Consortium is available at www.integrationconsortium.org or via e-mail at info@integrationconsortium.org.

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