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Types of B2B Application Integration

When contemplating B2B application integration for your organization, you must first understand the sum and content of the business processes and data in your organization. IT also needs to understand how these business processes are automated (or not automated, as the case may be) and realize the importance of all business processes. Depending on your enterprise, this may demand a significant amount of time and energy. Many organizations seek new methodologies to assist them in this process and use the opportunity to examine the best practices.

In brief, organizations must understand both business processes and data. They must then use this understanding to determine which processes and data elements require integration. This process can take on several dimensions, including these:

  • Data-oriented

  • Application interface-oriented

  • Method-oriented

  • Portal-oriented

  • Process integration-oriented

Data-oriented B2B application integration is the process—and the techniques and technology—of extracting information from one database, perhaps processing that information as needed, and updating it in another database within another organization. Although this process may sound simple and straightforward, in a typical B2B application integration-enabled enterprise, it might mean drawing from as many as 100 databases and several thousands of tables. It may also include the transformation and application of business logic to the data that is being extracted and loaded.

Cost is the primary advantage of data-oriented B2B application integration. For the most part, leaving the application alone and not changing code, so we don't need to incur the expense of changing, testing, and deploying the application. What's more, the technology that provides mechanisms to move data between databases, as well as reformats that information, is relatively inexpensive when compared to other B2B application integration levels and their applicable enabling technology.

Application interface-oriented B2B application integration refers to the leveraging of interfaces exposed by custom or packaged applications. Developers leverage these interfaces to access both business processes and simple information. Using these interfaces, developers can bundle any number of applications, allowing them to share business logic and information. The only limitations to this strategy rest with the specific features and functions of the application interfaces.

Application interface-oriented B2B application integration is most applicable to packaged applications, such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Baan. These applications expose interfaces into their processes and data, but they do so in very different ways. To integrate those systems with others in the enterprise, we must use these interfaces to access both processes and data, extract the information, place it in a format understandable by the target application, and transmit the information. While a number of different technologies can do this, message brokers seem to be the preferred solution.

Method-oriented B2B application integration is the sharing of the business logic that exists within the enterprise. For example, the method for updating a customer record may be accessed from any number of applications, within or between organizations. These applications may access each other's methods without having to rewrite each method within the respective application.

Numerous mechanisms exist for sharing methods among applications. These include distributed objects, application servers, Transaction Processing (TP) monitors, frameworks, and a new application that combines two or more applications.

There are two basic approaches to combining applications:

    1. Create a shared set of application servers that exist on a shared physical server, such as an application server

    2. Share methods already existing inside of applications using distributed method-sharing technology, such as distributed objects

Method-oriented B2B application integration is something that we've been practicing for years as we sought to reuse application development efforts within the enterprises. We've not been largely successful due to both human and technological issues. Perhaps with B2B application integration, we may get it right.

Portal-oriented B2B application integration is very popular today, thanks to the mushrooming use of the Internet. Using this approach, application architects can integrate applications by presenting information from several local or partner applications within the same user interface.

Those of us who use Web portals such as www.excite.com, www.yahoo.com, or www.snap.com daily are already familiar with this concept. Information from many places, such as other sites or applications, is presented within the same user interface, typically a Web browser. Enterprises are avoiding the complexity and expense of traditional back-end integration by leveraging this integration approach as a means of integrating enterprise systems (such as inventory, SAP, and sales automation systems from the previous example) at the user interfaces.

Process integration-oriented B2B application integration, at its core, is a sophisticated management system that places an abstract business-oriented layer on top of more traditional B2B information movement mechanisms. Process integration-oriented e-business provides those who are supporting B2B application integration with a business-oriented and process automation-like view of how business information flows between trading partners. Collaboration-level B2B application integration does not typically deal with physical integration flows and physical systems, but it deals instead with abstract and shared processes such as people, invoices, orders, companies, and merchandise. An example of process integration-oriented B2B application integration is integration that provides a common abstract process between trading partners to support the development, construction, and delivery of a durable good, such as an automobile.

Process integration-oriented B2B application integration is at the top of the food chain in the world of B2B application integration, leveraging other types of B2B application integration, including data level, method level, and application interface level. This is an emerging concept, but one that's going to ultimately drive most B2B application integration activity going forward after the physical integration problems are solved.

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