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What's Wrong With Enterprise Applications, And What Are Vendors Doing About It? Part Three: A New Approach and User Recommendations

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: June 24 2003

Introduction

With increased competition, deregulation, globalization, and mergers & acquisition activity, enterprise software buyers realize that product architecture plays a key role in how quickly vendors can implement, maintain, expand/customize, and integrate their products. Many in the enterprise applications vendors' community recognize that these are unmet realities and are attempting to offer solutions that will deal with them. While it is not practical to look at every strategy and every vendor's nuance, this note looks at some important examples representing distinct strategic approaches.

Part One of this note summarized the recent TEC series "What's Wrong With Application Software" and analyzed the vendor strategy of Evolution to address the problems cited.

Part Two discussed and analyzed the vendor strategy of a New Framework.

Strategy Three A New Approach

Some vendors have even decided to attempt using a brand new approach to software to solve the above issues. One vendor in case would be Ramco Systems who has used an internally developed Model Based Architecture to assemble a series of application products and to assemble customized enterprise applications. According to Mike Taylor, President of Ramco Americas, "By assembly we mean something from products or custom applications. Assembled applications provide the fit of custom solutions and the comprehensiveness and costs of products. It also provides continuous innovation capabilities over the life cycle of the software. Assembled solutions are superior to and applicable to organizations looking for both product based solutions, custom solutions and composite applications."

Ramco's solution delivers a platform, called VirtualWorks, which consists of a methodology, a set of web ready workbenches for every stage of the software development life cycle, and a model based architecture that can assemble enterprise solutions to a target environment of choice. With its recent announcements, Ramco is attempting to address all four issues depicted above (see Ramco Ships Technology And Products. Is This The Future Of Enterprise Applications?). Although the proof is still to come based upon the experience of the early adopters, the preliminary returns are promising since its customers are reporting that the basic economics of application software has indeed been impacted. Of special interest are those customers who are beginning to build composite applications using existing applications, Ramco's business process component, and the technology to develop applications that run through a full business process, across multiple application products.

Model Based Architecture

Today, the subject of improving core product technology often arrives at a discussion of Model Based Architecture. In many ways, the ideas behind it are not new, since many approaches to technology share many of the same basic concepts. Although not necessarily a panacea, what makes Model Based Architecture different is that it is practical approach, which is changing some of the basic rules and paradigms of software development. It is a metadata about the application; it applies many of the basic concepts of manufacturing to the creation of code, and is rather a life-cycle tool, not just a design or development tool.

Manufacturers have been increasingly using Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) to design products from automobiles to VCRs to microwaveable dinners. PLM takes an integrated approach to the product lifecycle, from the initial idea to design & development to actual production to product retirement. In other words, PLM covers the entire lifecycle, from the idea to create a new VCR or flavor of ice cream to the design specifications, via production, managing engineering changes to product retirement. Before PLM, we had a number of individual tools that helped in part, but they were not integrated, for example, computer aided design (CAD) helped in design, whereas manufacturing execution systems (MES) only helped manage a product route in production.

Like manufacturing, we can look at today's enterprise software architecture and typically identify similar islands of automation, since there are a series of development tools that help with initial development, but little or no integration exist across the software lifecycle (i.e., specifications, design, evaluate, construct, test, deploy, and replace). Most software development tools are thus like manufacturing CAD systems helping with development but not across the lifecycle. The new enterprise applications architects should, therefore, learn from PLM and take an integrated, lifecycle view of the effort, possibly by observing Ramco's approach.

Model Based Architecture is an application development framework that allows software applications to be described in terms of "what" they must do (i.e., the business view of the software) rather than "how" they must do it (i.e., the technical view of the software). Model Based Architecture puts the emphasis on designing the business processes and the business rules up front to make sure that business functionality is complete and correct before coding begins at all.

The modeling approach allows visualization of the intended solution so that business analysts, end-users and developers can ensure that business needs are met before implementation in software code renders changes difficult and prohibitively expensive to make. Using the model, the framework automatically generates the executable application instead of a programming team manually converting the specifications into software. This code generation increases development efficiency and typically allows generation onto a range of platform choices. Model Based Architectures are being used for custom development and are now appearing in packaged application products. For more information on how it addresses all the four above realities, see What's Wrong With Application Software? - A Possible Solution? What Is It, Why And How Does It Fit Into Your Future.

Not to mention that Ramco Enterprise Series suite also addresses the issues of being component-based and Internet-enabled. Moreover, the product is truly platform-agnostic, and will run on any commonly accepted database and operation system platform, and is both J2EE and .NET compliant.

Summary and Recommendations

Enterprises looking for new solutions should consider the vendors who have either rewritten their products on a new framework or are at least taking new approaches described above. Can you abandon your existing infrastructure and go to a model-based world today? Yes in theory, but that will not prove practical to the vast majority of enterprises, since the IT world is a mix of multiple applications, technologies, etc.

Thus, enterprises that are looking to fill in their existing application portfolio should look naturally first at their incumbent vendors for a solution. However, they should investigate alternative suppliers and the possibility of creating composite applications as an alternative approach. If the incumbent vendors do not adequately fill the need, vendors with strong application function plus the ability to participate in composite applications should be favored. What is required from an ideal composite solution is the ability to integrate the business process, integrate the applications and data, and supply additional functionality to "fill the gaps" to produce a cohesive, composite application that ensures transactional and contextual integrity across the entire business process including manual process/workaround, a spreadsheet, or some other solution that keeps the business process from being fully automated by applications.

Despite the user preference for a single, one-stop shop' vendor, componentized software products, interoperability standards and Internet technology will lead to fewer large-scale projects and an ongoing stream of smaller ones, all with tangible return on investment (ROI) rationale. Easy integration to third-party applications has become a key selling point for ERP vendors as thus many of them tout the provision of connectors to/from their systems and/or provision of integration development tools. However, users should vigorously question their potential enterprise applications providers the following:

  • Which industry interoperability standards (e.g., Open Applications Group Integration Specifications (OAGIS), XML, etc.) are supported?
  • Do they provide message-based flexible interface or a rigid code-based integration?
  • Do they provide basic batch-run interfaces or more advanced real-time, interactive two-way connections between applications?

The standards-based development model should ensure a tremendous amount of flexibility down the road. Enterprises that see themselves as technology leaders should consider new approaches to gain longer-term benefits from the decision. Further, although the widespread acceptance of Web services implementations will not happen any time soon, all enterprises should start learning the new protocols, standards and technologies in order to grasp the underlying business advantage of Web services, and to shift away from the software-centric mindset of largely outgoing client/server perspective.

This is by all means good news for many vendors' existing customers, particularly for the large corporations that need to integrate their internal applications with applications from other vendors and/or who need to exchange information with their business partners that are not necessarily usual vendor suspects' shops. Still, while the above new technology blueprints might be impressive, the market has often in the past witnessed how long the road is between the vision and execution, SAP's or PeopleSoft's huge resources notwithstanding.

Yet, the architecture will not benefit customers until products built on it begin to appear en mass. Therefore, potential and current customers with hefty integration requirements should not depart from their short-term IT investment strategies. They should also consider third-party EAI alternatives, particularly if the large corporation is looking to build integrating middleware standard corporate-wide and in the long term. Moreover, users should question their vendor's delivery fulfillment of its strategy and appreciate that migrating older instances and/or integrating them to other software will remain painstaking for some time to come.

About the Authors

Predrag Jakovljevic is a research director with TechnologyEvaluation.com (TEC), with a focus on the enterprise applications market. He has over 15 years of manufacturing industry experience, including several years as a power user of IT/ERP, as well as being a consultant/implementer and market analyst. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and he has also been certified in production and inventory management (CPIM) and in integrated resources management (CIRM) by APICS.

Olin Thompson is a principal of Process ERP Partners. He has over 25 years experience as an executive in the software industry. Olin has been called "the Father of Process ERP." He is a frequent author and an award-winning speaker on topics of gaining value from ERP, SCP, e-commerce and the impact of technology on industry. He can be reached at Olin@ProcessERP.com.

 
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