Although non-SAP and SAP systems integration is a thorny IT challenge, what used to be a landscape of limited middleware tools has blossomed into a wide range of technology choices as SAP continues to grow its ecosystem.
SAP has long offered software options for syncing up with non-SAP systems, but many of the older technologies -- SAP's early Web service architecture and traditional remote procedure call functionality, for instance -- have been fairly arcane for non-SAP specialists, according to John Appleby, who oversees consulting on SAP's HANA in-memory database for London-based Bluefin Solutions.
Appleby said that while the integration offerings have been optimized to import data from third-party software into SAP, they are not as functional when extracting data out of SAP for use in other platforms. "If you look back even five years ago, SAP was a walled garden, and if they continued to behave in that way, they would have become irrelevant because of the big data explosion," Appleby said.
"Today, we understand that trying to control integration too much is not possible, and [SAP has] moved away from the nirvana of trying to build one [integration platform] to rule the world to a world where open access to information is more important than controlling data. That is hugely positive," Appleby added.
SAP's more open stance and a raft of new technologies, from next-generation Web services and middleware to open standards, is prompting a sea of change in how SAP shops address integration, according to Michael Koch, a London-based independent SAP development consultant who writes a blog called Pixelbase.
"The pendulum is swinging toward more 'best of breed,' but with a stable core," he said, explaining that companies are sticking with SAP for core functionality such as CRM and financials, but integrating third-party technologies for what he calls situational applications, including user-facing applications.
"Because there are so many new devices, SAP simply can't provide the answers and applications for everything, but it can give us the tools and APIs [application programming interfaces] to use different development platforms that are more in tune and tailored to what customers individually want," Koch said.
There are three primary integration technologies from SAP, according to consultants specializing in integrating SAP and non-SAP software.
NetWeaver Process Orchestration is the behemoth in SAP's lineup, combining process management, process integration and business rules management software to help companies create system-to-system integrations and seamless business processes.
SAP NetWeaver Gateway is an integration environment enabling connections to SAP software from mobile devices, Web applications, and social and collaborative platforms, while SAP BusinessObjects Data Services is a data integration tool tuned primarily for batch data transfer and for extract, transform and load processes.
NetWeaver Process Orchestration lends itself to heavily engineered integration between two systems -- for example, syncing data from an Oracle database with data from an SAP database, Appleby said. In contrast, NetWeaver Gateway is a better choice for integrating customer-facing applications that expose pricing data to customers, for example. BusinessObjects Data Services, on the other hand, makes the most sense when pushing data from point A to point B, especially in the context of data warehouse applications, according to Appleby.
Making a match
Along with SAP's own integration portfolio, there are a variety of third-party middleware, enterprise service bus and complex event processing (CEP) applications that can help organizations take on the challenge of syncing up SAP and non-SAP systems. Integration observers say there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but a few factors can help guide the choice, including determining what level of integration is necessary. For example, some retail or finance applications require direct integration with CEP software in order to access and use real-time data. Other processes might get by with an asynchronous connection with a time lag between updates, which could be addressed by using standard middleware tools with enterprise service bus capabilities, according to Joshua Greenbaum, president of Enterprise Applications Consulting.
Other considerations that can help narrow down the field of integration options include the types of skill sets available in-house or from consulting partners along with the system of record, Greenbaum said.
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"All companies deal with different levels of integration, and there isn't a product that's better at any of these individual methods," Greenbaum said. "When you start moving into the asynchronous world, it boils down to what the system of record is and where you have expertise, and you tend to go with a tool that scores the highest on those two fronts."
Given the diversity of systems in a single organization, it's likely that IT shops will tap different integration technologies, according to Appleby.
"Most shops will have one or more enterprise service bus products: maybe one for the part of the enterprise that's primarily SAP and another for the part that's IBM," Appleby said.
"It's OK to have both and let them communicate with each other. That's a lower total cost of ownership than trying to standardize," Appleby said.
What's needed is some kind of middleware standard, added Arun Kumar, SAP applications architect and director of enterprise architecture and compliance for Harman, an electronics manufacturer.
Having a common integration architecture -- in Harman's case, NetWeaver Process Orchestration -- keeps things simpler, he said; for example, licensing arrangements are easier and resource planning is more effective, because staffers can be trained on a single technology.
"Depending how many systems you have in your shop, you can end up with a multitude of middleware, and without standardization, you end up with a nightmare," he said. "Having a single solution makes internal resource planning easier, as well as makes it easier for us to outsource commoditized work."