A certain bemusement accompanies watching traditional and new middleware vendors approach e-business. Each clearly believes that its technology represents the best approach to providing customers with the "most" of something, whether that "something" is flexibility, scalability, reliability, usability, or something else. While "the best approach" is not always easy to assess, it is clear that each vendor attacks the e-business problem in its own special way.
Although it's difficult to pigeonhole the e-business approaches that middleware vendors are taking, it is possible to create some general categories. These categories include business rules integration, information integration, process integration, and collaboration.
General E-business Approaches
Business rules integration refers to the binding of application logic between two or more e-business partners. This means that the composite applications that exist are accessible to all interested parties. As a result, the exchange of both information and business rules is fully automated.
While everyone seems to claim that they provide the infrastructure for sharing rules and data, the application server and distributed object vendors actually provide clear business rules integration approaches. They allow developers to re-host, or expose, existing rules or methods to other applications that may need them to support a virtual e-business system. For example, many banks have established Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) as a standard mechanism to share application services both within and between banks.
The information integration approach to e-business enablement operates at a slightly lower level than business rules integration. It provides a platform for exchanging relevant business data to support e-business initiatives—an example is the exchange of order and invoice data with a customer and vendor.
Information integration is relatively inexpensive and generally does not require many changes to the participating systems. As such, it is often the first step with most e-business projects. Message brokers, data replication engines, and data migration engines all take the information integration approach. Extensible Markup Language (XML), which provides a common information exchange format for many incompatible applications and data sources, has been providing the most value in this context.
Process integration to e-business enablement provides a set of processes that function above both business rules and information integration. Process integration is unlike traditional middleware. In actuality, it is a process model that resides on top of middleware and provides both logical and physical information flows over existing business systems.
Process integration is important to e-business because it provides an abstract business layer that exists over the physical plumbing, a layer that allows process integration tool users to map out the logical flow of information between systems within the same enterprise.
Collaboration middleware provides a "soft touch" approach to information movement. Collaboration typically means providing a geographically dispersed workgroup with the opportunity to share messages and other information in real time to support a business need. Applications include customer relationship management, online customer service, and virtual product development.
Collaboration's great strength is its ability to support virtual communities of participating humans and computers. As a result, the middleware must be "human-aware" and capable of providing an interface to other humans and systems, as well as data and information-aware, and capable of providing information to anyone from anywhere. Collaboration uses a centralized set of middleware to manage the movement of information. Collaboration and process automation approaches share many of the same design patterns.