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XML middleware boosts productivity tenfold

Published on June 17, 2002
on TechRepublic.Com

When it's time to integrate disparate B2B or enterprisewide systems, CIOs have two options. They can tap developers for unique integrations for each and every system. Or they can opt for middleware solutions with reusable processes, methods, code packages, and message management controls.

Faced with the task of getting in-house and intracompany systems to speak to one another, TechRepublic member Jon Nelson opted for XML middleware. Before jumping into the technology, though, he had to train his staff and essentially change the mind-set of how the company should accomplish intersystems integrations-no small feat in any environment.

Nelson, who spearheads strategic IT direction and plans within the Electronic Marketing Group at Tempe, AZ-based Avnet, started with brown-bag XML sessions and a mentorship program and eventually invested $300,000 last year in personnel, training, hardware, software, a support network, and appropriate database infrastructure.

His XML gamble has paid off tenfold-the shift to XML middleware improved productivity by $16 million to $20 million, and business processes integration work that once required 4,800 hours of staff time now takes about 480 hours (see Figure A).

Changing the integration paradigm

Nelson, who has been involved with enterprise integration programs (including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program) since the late 1980s, says the move to build XML-based collaboration engines was a "no-brainer."

"The demand for a standardized enterprise infrastructure collaboration basis is now, and has been, since the evolution of the client-server model, the single most significant problem in data and application integration," he said. "The acceptance and effective utilization of XML made it the best possible selection for this foundation."

Avnet had two major objectives for the XML integration projects. For its B2B applications, Nelson wanted an XML solution that would enable Avnet to collaborate with customers as well as suppliers, such as the e-procurement company Ariba. Among internal systems, Nelson sought to have all communication between dissimilar applications and data structures take place via XML.

Such wide-scale tools must be able to work with a variety of applications and data types. So to make certain that the XML solutions were as widely adaptable as possible, the Avnet developer team designed the middleware to comply with Rosettanet standards. The resulting tools, infrastructure, and much of the code itself are highly reusable, explained Nelson, which has made it easier for Avnet to cost-effectively create B2B solutions for customers who previously couldn't engage in online business transactions.

Why training came first

The initial B2B project and enterprise integrations went extremely smoothly, and Nelson credits this success to his 12-person team, consisting of two data scrubbers; two application testers; and three senior, two midlevel, and three junior programmers.

This team was charged with integration and also had to learn the XML technology prior to constructing solutions. To accomplish this, Nelson created a mentoring program that teamed the data scrubbers and application testers with the most senior programming talent. The goal was to raise the skills of the scrubbers and testers so they could eventually program as well. Senior programmers were charged with learning the XML technologies and training the others.

"Essentially, I took the extreme programming (XP) paradigm to a new level," said Nelson. "It was a gamble that paid off."

Six weeks after training, Nelson's 12-person team constructed its first Rosettanet communications package. The same team deployed its first in-house enterprise integration program in less than nine weeks, which included the integration of corporate legacy ERP and new services ERPs, as well as the collaboration of three corporate financial applications, the divisional operational data story, systems interfaces for quotes and orders, and a library of Web-based interfaces.

As a result of training and project work, Nelson now has three XML teams. One handles B2B collaboration via XML (replacing EDI) and Rosettanet. Another supports EAI initiatives. The third team, now evolving, will handle XML collaboration in the Web/portal arena, systems security (LDAP), and direct intraoffice subsystem collaboration.

The teams are comprised of both senior and midlevel developers for a specific reason.

"Every member of my initial team stepped up to the demands and evolved to a powerful and proven team in a new, in-demand skill set," Nelson explained.

For the tech leader, the opportunity to solve Avnet's B2B and enterprise integration problems with a flexible XML tool set has paid off. While it took an investment "in the tools, time, and education" to shift the paradigm, Avnet can now more efficiently collaborate with internal and external partners, he said.

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david southgate
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