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Has Infor found the trick to ERP integration?

Users and analysts at Inforum 2013 were impressed with its XML-based ION middleware, but wondered if Infor is pushing out apps fast enough.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- If Oracle Corp. is often knocked for acquiring many of its best business applications but then...

struggling to integrate them, the same should be said of Infor, which has its own, much longer list of inherited brands. But Infor might have found an approach to ERP integration that can elegantly link its disparate platforms, a result that has largely eluded Oracle. The company's ION middleware, a distributed architecture that uses the Web's extensible markup language (XML) to pass common business messages between applications in a standardized -- albeit proprietary -- way, seems newly poised to solve an old problem.

David EssexDavid Essex

ERP integration remains a burning issue at most companies, with more than half of SearchManufacturingERP readers, for example, calling integration with special-purpose applications, such as supply chain management, their number one challenge.

Infor certainly has its own motley collection of has-beens and never-went-aways to support and integrate into its comprehensive suite of business applications. Most of the legacy brands come with their own cohort of committed users, thousands of whom were in attendance here at this week's Inforum 2013 customer event.

A good place to be reminded of Infor's quandary, and to name names, is the ERP graveyard, an amusing but informative website that shows former ERP brands -- some glorious and others obscure even in their heyday -- that have been acquired by other companies. Each dead brand gets a tombstone for the number of times it was acquired. Infor's graveyard is far and away the biggest, with 125 stones. Oracle only makes fifth place with a mere 19.

Infor's yard holds many storied names, not the least of which is Baan, an early '90s heavyweight that seriously threatened SAP's dominance. It also has Lawson, acquired in 2011 and a public sector leader, as well as old green-screen manufacturing favorites like MAPICS, BPCS and Frontstep. Even the Infor name has a grave marker, thanks to the 2004 purchase of a German ERP maker.

Add to these the company's current platform of Infor-branded enterprise applications and still-popular legacy products, including SyteLine, LN (the previously renamed Baan platform) and M3, and you can see why Infor is investing so heavily in middleware development.

ION the prize

ION, which stands for Intelligent Open Network, isn't exactly new. Infor announced it in 2010, but it has been closely watched as it has gradually rolled out pieces, including new applications that run on ION and that bear the new version number Infor 10x. But at Inforum 2013, CEO Charles Phillips and his executive team rolled out a slew of ION-based applications, with SyteLine, M3, Hansen and Lawson S3 among them.

In his keynote, Phillips told the roughly 6,000 customers that Infor has also developed around 100 complex XML messages to handle common business documents or transactions such as purchase orders and general ledger entries, based on the Open Application Group Integration Specification (OAGIS). These messages, called Business Object Documents (BODs), are what allow business applications -- Infor's or third-party -- to communicate, though ION can also handle Web services and standard XML integrations. You can buy ION by itself to set up your own integrations and workflows or have Infor or a consultant do it. At Inforum 2013, Infor was sure to showcase the few customers that have done it.

A Business Vault data warehouse keeps copies of the messages for reuse and analytics, and now a cloud-version called SkyVault, also new this week, puts the data in the cloud for "big data" analytics that Phillips said is 10 to 50 times faster than OLAP. Also touted at the conference was Ming.le, a social media-style user interface for presenting ION information.

When asked what they thought of it all, analysts and users at the conference gave Phillips and his new, engineering-centric team great credit for designing an elegant solution. But most also said Infor has taken a while to put flesh on the bones, and is taking a big gamble trying to integrate such a broad portfolio of applications.

For Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research, Infor's historical value proposition has always been about the economics of bringing under one umbrella a collection of apps that were less efficient on their own. Now the company is using marquee users like Ferrari to lead customers to its newer platforms, though the breadth and depth of actual integration from ION is yet to be seen, Wang said. One strength of Infor is its emphasis on either function-specific applications (think CRM) or "micro-verticals" such as bread and cereal makers in the food and beverage industry. SAP had a similar vertical focus on applications, he said, but has lately emphasized technology plays, leaving applications to the likes of Infor and Epicor.

As for ERP integration, Josh Greenbaum, president of Enterprise Applications Consulting, said Infor is taking a fundamentally different approach from Oracle's, which instead developed a whole new, Web-based suite of applications under the Fusion rubric and gave customers reasons to migrate to them. Greenbaum agreed that Infor's approach is high-risk, high-reward, with much yet to be determined.

In some ways, Infor has simply come up with the latest take on decades-old methods of middleware. Enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors of the 1990s used a message-based paradigm that has lived on in today's middleware mainstays from TIBCO and webMethods. Middleware vendors have also long been in the workflow business, and not just living at the lower levels that mere mortals rarely touch. They claim to have "purpose-built" middleware, too, and business process management (BPM) has similar stories to tell.

Infor's gamble could pay off. Lightweight integration schemes like ION are just what the industry needs to boil down huge enterprise applications and data stores to their essence: information that fits on mobile devices and big-buttoned touch screens while meeting the needs of users who have come to expect near real-time performance. That's a future worth investing in, but Infor is probably tied more than most vendors to a past that might best be left behind. What's more, XML can be complex -- Infor claims to use it in standard ways that simplify how BODs are defined, selected and extended -- and Web services will still play a major role in future integrations. ION is no magic bullet.

Still, Phillips said that like the Internet it is modeled after, ION is federated, lacks a single point of failure and operates at a level high enough to leave existing applications more or less alone. It's an elegant solution for a company with lots of little republics to keep close under its wing, regardless of the outside world.

More on ERP integration

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  • Read about risks in cloud ERP integration
  • Learn about ERP integration tools

David Essex is executive editor of TechTarget's business application web sites. You can reach him at [email protected] and on Twitter @dessexTT.

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