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XML: Article

XML in Enterprise Applications

XML in Enterprise Applications

Enterprise application systems - ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), CRM (Customer Relationship Management), SCM (Supply Chain Management), etc. - have for decades run mission-critical systems for medium to large organizations. With their large breadth of integrated, prebuilt functionality these systems have been at the heart of the IT infrastructure. There's also been the constant challenge of integrating them with legacy/custom/homegrown systems as well as the e-business/edge applications and infrastructure. As architects and developers, we've spent sleepless nights trying to understand application-specific APIs, interface tables, file formats, and so on. The era of XML and Web services has given us hope, and we're seeing a movement toward decoupled interfaces based on XML messaging and eventually Web services.

To appreciate the value that XML brings to enterprise applications, I spoke with technology executives of leading enterprise application vendors who have started to see the benefits of their investments in technologies such as XML and Web services.

From Flat Files and APIs to XML and Web Services
Most application providers started providing interfaces to their applications using file exchange. Files in a particular format (which was often proprietary to the application vendor) were expected to be created by external applications and were to be consumed by the application; similarly, on the outbound side they were created for consumption. With the advent of EDI, standard file formats based on EDI (with a lot of variations, of course) began to be utilized. To facilitate online or real-time integration, vendors then began exposing key abstractions of their functionality as Remote Procedure Calls (RPC). These were typically developed in C/C++ and ported across the various platforms supported by the vendor. In addition to these tightly coupled interfaces, a number of vendors also provided database drivers that typically allowed "read-only" access to the back-end data (as business rules to validate the data were typically encapsulated in either the GUI or the business functions). Another mechanism was that of an interface table, which allowed external applications to deposit external data into a set of RDBMS tables; it was then processed by "processors" specific to that business transaction.

In late '90s and early 2000s XML came into existence. Application vendors saw this as an opportunity to provide technology-independent interfaces to their systems. Through either internal product development or OEM-bundling arrangements of "XML Integration Servers," they delivered XML interfaces to their existing application suites. This is where we are today, with most applications in production. Most application providers, however, have further embraced the service-oriented architecture (SOA) concepts and have architected a Web services strategy to provide industry-standard Web services interfaces to their back-end functionality.

.NET and/or Java
At some point most application providers had to decide whether to inherently utilize a Java- or .NET-based architecture. Web services gives application providers an easy solution for interoperability with customers' application development, enterprise portals, integration, etc., infrastructures. Web services and XML decouple them from their core technologies so that even if they're built on top of .NET or Java, they can support both environments and many more.

Interoperability Within Multiple Versions
Over the past two decades the functionality, architecture, technologies, and even the paradigm utilized by application vendors have evolved. For example, there are many versions of SAP applications in production today. Some are based on mainframe technologies, some are client/server, and some utilize the next-generation NetWeaver platform. In many cases these applications have to talk with each other or with another SAP "bolt-on" application on the base ERP, such as CRM or SCM. In these scenarios Web services and XML provide a mechanism through which a wrapper/interface can be developed that uses a predefined XML-based message or transaction and consistently works with multiple versions of the underlying application through version-specific bindings.

Not Just Internal Services
The scope of Web services is definitely not limited to inbound connectivity to enterprise applications. In a number of scenarios (for example a credit card payment or credit checks through an external agency), an enterprise application needs to connect with the external application from within a business process. Web services can provide a seamless way of connecting with external providers in a standard fashion. Most application vendors support Web services today, but typically through COM/Java wrappers. For most packages, out-of-box support for outbound Web services into the business processes of these applications remains to be seen.

UDDI as an Application Business Registry
With the emergence of Web services a public registry based on UDDI was touted as a key highlight. For a number of reasons, UDDI-based public registries aren't as successful today, but the concept of having a business services registry is intriguing. Providers of ERP/CRM applications offer a lot of functionality, and with most of their components now exposed as Web services, UDDI or a UDDI-like framework allows creation of an application business registry in which metadata and information for all the services provided by the application can be stored and exposed to the rest of the enterprise for use and consumption by other Web services consumers.

Composite Applications
Web services provide a lot of technology-related benefits. From a business perspective the biggest advantage that Web services-based architectures bring is business agility. Applications designed and developed using the services-oriented model are more capable of accepting change than traditional tightly coupled architectures. In the world of enterprise applications (and in enterprise integration), a new term is emerging: "composite applications." Composite applications are a new breed of applications that sit on top of existing applications. They contain new business processes and functionality. Instead of being stand-alone applications, however, they also utilize functionality in existing systems. An example of a composite application is a merger application. An SOA makes the development of these composite applications (or bolt-ons) much easier.

Mike Madden
J.D. Edwards' middleware solutions, XPI (eXtended Process Integration) and XBPs (eXtended Business Processes), give customers the power to collaborate between applications and among enterprises, regardless of software packages utilized. XPI and XBPs allow customers to rapidly react to marketplace changes by providing an application integration process that incorporates an emerging XML and Web services strategy and, unlike competing offerings, is not enormously costly, complex, and time consuming. J.D. Edwards middleware solutions also help customers maximize the application investments they have made with J.D. Edwards and move quickly and effectively, but also safely and securely, down the path of ERPII.

Kyle Gunderson
Development Director
of Web Technologies
Lawson Software
XML technology was instrumental in producing Lawson's browser-based, thin-client Portal solution. By using XML to extend our system-definition metadata to a rich set of Web-tier services, we dramatically shortened the development cycle while enhancing the functionality of our Internet-based Portal and Design Studio solutions.

Marcus Schmidt
Lead Product Manager
Microsoft Business Solutions
Microsoft Business Solutions is using XML Web services today in projects such as its forthcoming business network, which will enable companies to streamline collaboration with customers, suppliers, and other business partners. XML Web services are integral to every future product we build, and a foundation component for our next-generation applications.

Art Kruk
VP, Research & Technology
for Oracle E-Business Suite
Oracle Corporation
Oracle has built and is continuing to build industry-standard messaging capabilities directly into our base applications and technology products. And, not only are we building to standards, we are helping to define those standards. Oracle has contributed significantly to the various standards-based content subcommittees (OAG, ebXML, RosettaNet).

Today, Oracle has approached the delivery of Web services from three perspectives. First, the ability to define and automatically create any business object as a Web service. Second, the ability to manage, transform/map, and deliver A2A and B2B integration messages, including Web services, XML, RosettaNet, and others. Third, direct message integration into the integration layer of our E-Business Suite applications.

Today, thousands of Oracle E-Business Suite business objects can be enabled as Web services using Oracle's JDeveloper toolset and Oracle9iAS integration services. In addition, to solve a class of specific customer pain points, Oracle has prebuilt 6 key business objects consisting of 53 Web services. Going forward, Oracle plans to offer more prebuilt Web services in areas where customers show specific interest.

David Sayed
Marketing Manager,
PeopleSoft Technology
PeopleSoft, Inc.
Web services build on top of the standards-based integration framework that is an integral part of the PeopleSoft Internet Architecture, and all PeopleSoft applications.

The support and wide deployment of Web services are key factors in ensuring interoperability between enterprise applications. Emerging Web services standards will play an important role in the seamless deployment of business processes that span multiple applications. PeopleSoft's support of current and emerging Web services standards, in addition to supporting traditional integration approaches such as batch, enables us to address the real needs of our customers.

Thomas Mattern
Product Marketing Manager
SAP expects a significant move from three-tier C/S architecture and basic Internet technology to an Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA), which expands the concept of Web services into a services-based, enterprise-scale business architecture. While Web services are merely a technical concept, the ESA is the blueprint for services-based business solutions, encompassing internal and external SAP and non-SAP systems relevant to a business process in the value chain. These solutions are expected to set new standards in usability, scalability, and adaptability while significantly lowering total cost of ownership.

Doug Smith
VP, Architecture
Siebel Systems
XML standards are quickly leading to an inflection point in how enterprise applications are developed and deployed. Siebel Systems has committed to using XML standards throughout our offerings. Siebel 7.5 is currently in market and provides native support for XML, SOAP, and WSDL for exposing the user interface, business services, and customer data. Siebel's Universal Application Network, which provides integration applications, or out-of-the-box business processes, is based upon XML standards such as WSFL, XSD, and XSLT. Siebel's UAN and the underlying XML technologies enable customers to address end-to-end business processes that can be readily deployed and adapted to changing business conditions.

XML and Web services architectures provided an evolutionary path to the integration infrastructure for enterprise applications. Most of the large application vendors have utilized these technologies today or have them in their the near-future technology plans. This is good for application developers and integrators because we can focus on the real business logic rather than rattle with a bunch of proprietary APIs. With the emergence of business process modeling and execution standards such as BPEL4WS and WSCI, we're bound to see the continued infiltration of Web services technologies into enterprise applications.

More Stories By Hitesh Seth

Hitesh Seth is chief technology officer of ikigo, Inc., a provider of XML-based web-services monitoring and management software. A freelance writer and well-known speaker, he regularly writes for technology publications on VoiceXML, Web Services, J2EE and Microsoft .NET, Wireless Computing & Enterprise/B2B Integration. He is the conference chair for VoiceXML Planet Conference & Expo.

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Most Recent Comments
Jeff Wilson 04/30/03 02:42:00 PM EDT

Yikes, what a lot of hard work underlies the quotations given in this article!

Those quoted are pionerrs who risked taking arrows in the back, and it took them a long time to get where they are. There are quicker paths to success today, of course. For example, see www.waterlang.org for a nice language designed for XML manipulation and web services development.