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Integrating Enterprise Content with Enterprise Applications

  Article published in DM Direct Special Report
November 11, 2003 Issue
 
  By Dan Ryan

For years, companies have faced the daunting challenge of efficiently managing and sharing increasing amounts of business content. This process, which includes exchanging information between internal and external audiences and across enterprise applications, often leads to content being replicated numerous times throughout an organization. As a result, multiple versions of content are circulated, making it difficult for employees, customers and partners to find accurate, consistent, up-to-date information.

Recently, enterprise content integration (ECI) capabilities have hit the market that help companies more fully leverage and manage the content and intellectual assets found throughout their organizations. By connecting disparate repositories of business content, ECI allows information to be delivered to multiple e-business applications across an organization without replicating the content for each application.

Much like enterprise application integration (EAI) brought companies the ability to seamlessly connect IT systems, ECI represents the next wave of integration technology.

Increasingly, companies are turning to content management (CM) systems to meet their ECI needs. These solutions provide a single, common interface through which content managed in a number of repositories can be easily accessed by a variety of other enterprise applications.

To facilitate this content integration process, more and more companies are choosing Web services. While this technology is still in its infancy and companies must carefully evaluate whether it will adequately meet their integration needs, Web services provide a cost-effective, standards-based method for carrying out what has become a critical IT process.

The Role of Content Management in ECI

According to META Group, the data inside a corporation doubles every six to eight months. To ensure this content provides maximum business value, it must be stored and managed electronically where internal and external parties can easily access it. In addition, it must be delivered to various e-business applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and portals, for use in critical business processes.

To distribute content across multiple applications, companies traditionally replicated it for each solution, leading to numerous versions of the same content in circulation throughout an organization. When content needed to be updated, each of those versions had to be located and revised - a time-consuming process. CM systems offer an alternative to this inefficient, error-prone method. These systems maintain a single, up-to-date version of each piece of content that can be delivered to and used by multiple e-business applications throughout an organization.

There are two approaches CM systems employ to meet the primary objective of ECI technology, which according to Doculabs is, "to provide a unified view of content across multiple content management systems and repositories or wherever that content may reside." The first is to bring all business content into a single, centralized repository that provides robust CM functionality, such as version control, library services, workflow capabilities and content conversion.

The second approach allows organizations to manage content across multiple repositories by tracking the locations of and meta data associated with content without bringing it all into one central repository. The CM system then aggregates the disparate systems where content is stored and provides companies with an easy way to locate, share, manage and update business-critical information. Web services are often used to facilitate this integration between multiple content repositories.

Benefits of CM-Based ECI

Regardless of the approach, CM-based ECI generates a variety of business benefits for organizations. It reduces content duplication, ensuring more consistent, accurate information is used throughout a company. Additionally, CM systems provide version control capabilities, enabling users to easily track the history of revisions made to specific content.

CM-based ECI also brings a greater degree of efficiency to many business processes. For example, by integrating enterprise content with a CRM system, sales representatives can enhance customer service by locating relevant information and responding to customer queries more quickly.

In addition, companies can decrease costs with ECI because less server space and computer hardware is needed when only one version of content is maintained. Likewise, a CM system can lower the total cost of ownership related to ECI because organizations do not have to build a customized ECI solution or invest in a separate product to provide additional capabilities, such as workflow, search and security - the CM system provides all of this needed functionality.

CM suites that offer Web services can generate further cost and time-savings for companies because these standard, platform-independent technologies can facilitate content integrations with little to no custom coding.

Critical CM Features and Functionality

When selecting a system to support an ECI strategy, companies should ensure it provides a comprehensive set of CM features and functionality in order to facilitate highly sophisticated ECI processes throughout an organization. These features and functionality include:

Workflow - A CM system should have strong workflow capabilities that support complex content approval and decision-making activities, and that integrate with other e-business applications. Workflow should allow for content to be handed off to another application and for the workflow to continue after content is returned to the CM system by this application.

Search - A CM system should enable users to easily search for content across multiple repositories in order to find content wherever it is located within an enterprise. This feature is critical for e-business applications that need to automatically or manually retrieve content stored anywhere in an organization.

Security - A CM system should include a robust security architecture to control user access to content. User profiles and permissions must remain the same whether users are accessing content from a CRM solution, ERP system or portal application. And, CM systems should seamlessly integrate with and leverage a company's existing LDAP or active directory security system.

Content conversion - A CM system should automatically convert multiple native files, such as word processing documents, spreadsheets and graphics, to Web and wireless formats, such as PDF, XML, WML and HTML. This conversion ensures content can be accessed and utilized by any Web-based application, regardless of its native format.

Content delivery and distribution - A CM system should aggregate and distribute all types of content within an organization, regardless of location or file format. Some CM products provide connectors to external content repositories that enable organizations to then move content from these repositories into a CM environment for centralized management and access by a variety of enterprise applications.

Standards-based integration options - A CM system should provide methods for seamlessly integrating content and CM functionality with other e-business applications developed on multiple platforms. For example, it should support standards-based application programming interfaces (APIs), such as Java and Component Object Model (COM) APIs, for customization and integration.

Some CM systems offer pre-built connectors to other e- business applications that facilitate quick, out-of-the-box integrations. Portlets are an example of this type of connector, tightly integrating CM systems and portal applications in order to allow users to access content and CM functionality from a portal interface.

Persistent URLs are another option for integrating content with multiple applications. With this method, each content item corresponds with one URL that always leads back to a specific piece of content no matter how many changes have been made to that information. In this way, a persistent URL can be integrated with an unlimited number of applications that need to access specific content.

Finally, many companies are choosing to implement CM systems that offer Web services as an integration option. These technologies enable content and CM functionality to be quickly and efficiently shared among e-business applications regardless of the platform on which they operate.

Web Services - A Preferred Method of ECI

Web services increasingly are becoming a preferred method for carrying out ECI processes. The platform-independent nature of Web services allows CM systems to easily deliver content and information about content to any other application whether it resides on the Internet, within an organization or across corporate boundaries.

Web services that rely on extensible markup language (XML) for exchanging and accessing data and applications are growing in popularity. Traditionally, companies needed to develop custom technology in order for applications to effectively interact and share content. With XML, the self-defining nature of this language allows disparate systems to understand each other with little or no custom coding, which is a substantial benefit over previous distributed computing approaches.

Many CM systems leverage XML-based Web services to share and deliver data and specific CM features to other applications. Three components of these Web services are:

  • Simple object access protocol (SOAP) - an XML-based message format that is used to communicate or deliver requests between Web services.
  • Web services description language (WSDL) - an XML-based description that defines the way a Web service is to be accessed and used.
  • Universal description, discovery and integration (UDDI) - an XML-based directory that is used for the registration and real-time lookup of Web services. By looking up a service in the UDDI directory, a Web service can find another Web service to dynamically integrate.

Selecting a Web Services Approach

Because Web services are based on standard, platform-independent technologies, they provide companies with highly flexible methods for integrating content and CM functionality with other applications. No matter what hardware, operating system or programming environment internal or external users may be utilizing, Web services can deliver content to their critical applications.

These technologies greatly reduce the costs and time involved in ECI because they virtually eliminate the need for custom coding. Web services can be used as a cost-effective replacement for expensive Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) integrations, as well as pure application-to-application integration projects, such as a CM system with an enterprise portal.

However, before selecting Web services to support ECI processes, organizations should thoroughly evaluate all integration options to make sure Web services meet their needs. The technology is still in its infancy and will likely evolve during the coming years to include more enhanced capabilities. For example, SOAP currently provides little to no security features, so companies are required to incorporate this functionality from other applications.

As Web services mature, security features as well as other, more enhanced functionalities will be added to these technologies. Companies choosing to use Web services need to remain aware of changes coming down the road and consistently integrate Web service upgrades into their ECI systems. Otherwise, the process of integrating content across multiple applications may be slowed and the benefits typically generated by ECI may be nonexistent.

Web Services in Action

There are many circumstances in which using Web services for ECI is the most appropriate option for companies striving to enable information-sharing between disparate environments, such as Windows and UNIX. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario #1: A consumer goods manufacturing company developed a new employee portal based on technology that easily functions within the .NET Web services environment. The company integrated the portal with a UNIX-based CM system, which allows users to contribute, manage and access content of any type, such as marketing materials, research documents and consumer survey information, through the portal interface. Employees retrieve content by logging on to the portal, which provides access to the CM system through the .NET integration. Web services allow users to search and retrieve content based on specific criteria, select one or two pieces of content, and then drag content into their Windows-based personal workspace. Users can then modify this content offline and drag the updated version back into a Web services "contribution portlet," which delivers the revised content to the CM system that is operating in a UNIX environment.

Scenario #2: An organization with multiple locations worldwide has implemented a CM and ERP system to manage and process its invoices. Employees in various geographic regions use the systems during various steps of the accounts payable process. For example, employees in locations A through D contribute invoices into the CM system, which initiates a workflow process that alerts an employee in location E that invoices have been submitted and checks need to be cut. If the employee in location E needs additional information in order to fully process an invoice, he/she can initiate another workflow that sends an email to the appropriate person in location B who can provide more data. A Web services integration between the CM and ERP systems enables all employees to access the invoices and related content no matter which application they are using. Because the employees are operating on different technology systems and platforms depending on their office location, Web services are essential in order to easily connect these disparate systems; one specific API is not likely able to integrate all of the various applications.

As the amount of data generated within organizations continues to rise at a rapid pace, the ability to share and leverage this content across multiple e-business applications becomes more critical. ECI solutions that are based on CM systems with strong Web services technologies provide organizations with the capabilities they need to maximize the value of their growing content assets by making them easily accessible for use by a variety of applications.

Without this capability, companies risk losing essential business information contained in content and wasting a valuable asset.

...............................................................................

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) and Content Management.

Dan Ryan, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Stellent, is responsible for developing and implementing comprehensive product and marketing strategies to expand Stellent's global presence and market share. Additionally, he is responsible for business and corporate development activities that have resulted in many key relationships and acquisitions. Since Ryan joined Stellent in April 1999, he has been instrumental in setting the strategic direction of the company.

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