With the myriad disparate software programs available to retailers, it's no surprise they're greeting EAI (enterprise application integration) with open arms, and demanding it from software vendors.
EAI (enterprise application integration) might be a relatively new concept to you, the retail IT guy, though it's been applied in Fortune 500 companies, financial services and healthcare for several years now. But with the proliferation of vendor-provided software applications in our market space (and considering the rate at which retailers have adopted them), EAI solution providers have recognized retail as fertile ground to grow sales. End-user demand has helped spur the growth of EAI in the industry, placing the burden of integration squarely on the shoulders of software vendors. Those vendors are in turn looking to EAI to simplify the integration effort. Before you make your next software investment, you should consider EAI carefully, and be wary of software vendors that are not familiar with the concept.
What is EAI?
EAI, put simply, networks data among disparate systems, eliminating the inefficiencies of running multiple programs that are otherwise incommunicado with one another. Sounds like magic, doesn't it? If you're not savvy to the concept yourself, you're not alone. To many, the acronym is somewhat of an enigma. Mark Shary, president of EAI provider Bostech Corporation, sums it up. "As retailers aggressively buy systems for things like ERP (enterprise resource planning), warehouse management, POS (point of sale), and so on, they experience the need to integrate these systems to allow transaction data to touch six, seven, or more applications," he says. "One system might dictate pricing, one indicates shipping availability, one validates the credit card. Without integration, these background processes are manual and require user intervention, phone calls, faxes, and data entry, for example." These inefficiencies are eliminated by EAI, which ensures data integration between applications without stops or human intervention.
Bostech is one of a few companies that supply EAI solutions to software vendors, that then repackage them as part of their own applications. In the vertical markets that were early adopters of EAI, it has become common practice for software vendors to include EAI integration points in their products. It's a newer term in retail, however, so if it's EAI you're after, make certain your software vendors are in the game.
Why Not Middleware?
Perhaps you think you have the interface problem licked because you hired a third party systems integrator, who sold you a custom (and probably expensive) point-to-point interface solution. Or perhaps you have a specialist on staff who wrote the code to accomplish the same point-to-point interaction. In either case, this is a labor-intensive process that requires byte-level detail and several custom software configurations between points, all of which need to be managed individually to accommodate each unique relationship. In contrast, EAI allows an end user to run software programs with the confidence that data is flowing seamlessly throughout the enterprise. The solution is delivered via a server that acts as a hub to each software application. Each system, therefore, has only one relationship to manage - a relationship that each system has in common - with the hub.
Times are tight, and retailers want to know the total cost of ownership of a system before they buy it. Implementation costs can outweigh the cost of the system itself, and much of that cost is attributed to the time put in to making the integration work. Your development staff probably doesn't have that kind of time to devote to connecting your vendors' solutions and maintaining those connections, and you probably don't have the resources to outsource the service, either. Therefore, you should hold vendors accountable for these connectivity issues, and you'll see many of them turn to EAI to deliver. According to Shary, the recent volume of retail software vendors expressing interest in EAI is indicative of that.