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Advances in ERP integration tools bring ease to software connectivity

Integration has matured from one-to-one APIs to general-purpose web technologies like SOA. That's good news for manufacturers struggling to connect their shop floors with ERP.

Time was, connecting your ERP system with third-party applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) was heavy lifting to be avoided at all costs. ERP integration projects were expensive, long and arduous, often ending in abandonment years after benefits such as better decision making and greater automation were supposed to have been delivered.

Today’s integrations have eased considerably thanks to a spate of new ERP integration tools, both from established ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle as well as independent software vendors. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is a large part of the story, as is lighter-weight middleware, based on extensible markup language, (XML) that smoothes the translation and mapping processes from ERP to the target application. This is not your father’s ERP integration.

SAP, Oracle rely on Web services to ease ERP integration

SOA debuted several years ago, but its impact is just now being felt by midsize manufacturers. SOA provides a model of how to integrate disparate applications via Web services. Rather than defining a traditional point-to-point connection like an application programming interface (API), SOA defines the interface in terms of Web protocols and reusable functionality, greatly speeding the process.

Leading ERP vendors SAP and Oracle have boosted their integration capabilities in recent years to make it easier for small to midsize manufacturers to share data with third-party applications, whether deployed on premises or as a managed service.

 

“All of the major ERP vendors have made an effort to open up their APIs to third-party vendors,” said Joshua Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Application Consulting, in Berkeley, Calif. So, in cases in which you are implementing a third-party application from scratch, rely on your vendors to work out the integration themselves, and the process should go smoothly.

Manufacturers’ IT teams will still need to get involved with integration, however, particularly from a process integration standpoint (for example, to create supplier management functions that cut across several applications). The big ERP vendors have eased that kind of integration task, as well.

SAP, for example, offers its Process Integration framework, which is based on the company’s NetWeaver integration platform. It also offers Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (MII), a newer, plant-focused integration tool that brings the SAP ERP system down to the applications operating on the production floor. MI is aimed at SMBs, according to Frank Platt, senior director of SSM Manufacturing at SAP.

“There are dozens of shop-floor apps that are managing work executions, PLCs [programmable logic controllers], data collection, maintenance, quality. We integrate all of that to ERP in real time and present the information in context according to the user’s role.” MII extends the traditional middleware capabilities with visualization and business analytics, he added.  

MII has important integration capabilities, including Open DataBase Connect and Java Message Service for extracting data to share with the target system. Version 12.2 features the Plant Connectivity (PCO) framework. “PCO accelerates and expands the number of technologies we can integrate with via Web services,” Platt said. “We plug in to a lot more things today via XML.” Third-party vendors of factory-floor software can build connections to their applications via an open-source software developer’s kit (SDK). “We can integrate to any third-party application using SOA techniques,” he said.

MII 12.2 also has a new capability called Business Logic Services, a flow-based, application-building environment with mapping and data transformation built in.

“We bring business data down to the shop floor and then send it back up again,” not just passing data on a bus but managing it from a transactional standpoint, Platt said.

SAP’s enhancements to its business process management and orchestration tools have made it easier to integrate the ERP system with plant floor and other applications, said Gerardo Ramon, process manager and practice lead for SAP Process Integration at iTelligence, an SAP systems integrator in Cincinnati. “PLM, MRP, SCM and CRM are the four major areas that our mid-size manufacturing customers most want to integrate with SAP,” Ramon said.

For its part, Oracle updated its Fusion Middleware 11g line of products last year, incorporating integration technology it obtained in its 2008 acquisition of BEA Systems. According to the company, Fusion 11g takes a standards-based approach to bringing a wide range of SOA development processes together in a single design environment. The 11g release represents a wholesale code changeout, according to Tony Baer, principal analyst at Ovum.

Customers who had been using the prior generation are in for some upheaval as they adapt to a platform that has little in common with the previous generation, Baer said. “11g is the equivalent of going to an entirely new integration stack,”, so there is likely to be confusion while customers acclimate. On the other hand, Baer said, “if you stay within an all-Oracle stack, there are proprietary tools and a framework that provide a much easier approach to integration.”

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