Calling all data

During the past two months, the Bush administration's war on terrorism

has sparked a surge in support for greater collaboration among government

organizations to combat terrorism.

On Capitol Hill, Congress passed anti-terrorism legislation that boosts

information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement organizations,

while prominent public figures, such as former National Security Adviser

Sandy Berger, urged homeland security director Tom Ridge to make data sharing

a priority.

A diverse set of technologies that facilitate collaboration, known as

enterprise application integration (EAI), could hold the key to achieving

this goal. Efforts to deploy data-sharing systems, however, will face the

technological complexities of agency legacy systems and a thicket of political

and cultural issues. "There is no doubt that the technology exists to do

[what] the government really needs to do," said Greg Christensen, director

of government sales at TIBCO Software Inc. "It is really just a matter of

politics."

EAI is an umbrella concept covering a range of tools that enable information

collaboration and sharing among multiple, disparate applications, said Tyler

McDaniel, director of application strategies at the Hurwitz Group.

Pegged at $3.8 billion last year, these technologies are expected to

yield $9.5 billion in revenue by 2005, said Joanne Correia, vice president

of the software industry research group of Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner

Inc. Government has not been a major market for EAI, but that was expected

to change even before the Sept. 11 attacks because of the slowdown in key

commercial markets, she said.

Most of the EAI products sold are so-called integration broker suites.

These suites bundle a comprehensive set of integration tools including adap.ters,

a communications bus, business process management and analytic tools, and

a business-to-business server, said Mark Triplett, vice president and general

manager of the federal division at Vitria Technology Inc.

Vitria, TIBCO Software, webMethods Inc., Mercator Software Inc., SeeBeyond

Technology Corp. and IBM Corp. are the top vendors of such software packages,

according to Gartner Dataquest.

An adapter connects an application, such as enterprise resource planning

(ERP), to the communications bus and translates the information from that

application into a data format compatible with the system to which it will

be linked.

For example, it could convert information from a legacy application

in Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to Extensible Markup Language (XML)

so it can connect to newer applications using XML, Triplett said.

The communications bus, commonly referred to as message-oriented middleware,

then "broadcasts" that data to an application or applications on a point-to-point

or publish-subscribe basis. In the latter, information is "published" on

a "channel" that includes only subscriber applications or those that are

involved in the particular transaction.

For example, there could be an order invoice channel, and when there

is a new order ready to be invoiced, that information would be published

on this channel and only those applications involved in the new order invoice

process would be informed, Trip.lett said.

Business process automation technology then "takes the input from the

ëpublisher' and...makes sure...the ësubscribers' are getting the information,"

Triplett explained, adding that business analytic tools provide the end

user with a view of the entire process.

Finally, a business-to-business integration server extends the EAI beyond

the enterprise to include trading partners.

"It is just like one more connector" that would allow "my supply chain

management system to talk to my supplier's ERP system," Triplett said. He

added that the business-to-business integration server includes a trading

partner registry with "rules of how to communicate with your trading partners,"

including data format and security requirements.

Integration broker suites are by no means the only EAI offerings available.

"There are a lot of point products out there" that can, for example, only

translate EDI to XML, Triplett said.

Then there are companies, such as Candle Corp., that use straight-through

processing, which transmits data through the network without a communications

bus, Correia noted.

Candle offers network-oriented integration focusing on "transactions

that go across multiple divisions," said Candle's chief executive officer,

Aubrey Chernick, noting that the company also provides business service

management to assist with the collaboration.

There are also those who eschew the EAI model entirely.

The government needs "to rethink how...[it has] siloed informationÖbut

the way we are going to get about that is not by wiring a lot of stuff together

with middleware," said Kevin Fitzgerald, senior vice president and general

manager of Oracle Corp.'s public-sector unit. Instead, he advocates migrating

the data from applications into "a secure data store...and providing ad hoc

query capability."

Challenges

Regardless of the approach, any effort to boost data sharing will face

a mix of technological and cultural challenges.

There are the fundamental issues involved in connecting applications

that "have been developed very independently," said Leif Ulstrup, vice president

of American Management Systems Inc. "They could be as mundane as different

field lengths for first and last names, but those sorts of issues can multiply

in fairly significant ways."

Security "is where things really tend to bog down," said Michael Fox,

vice president of corporate development at SRA International Inc. "Whenever

you need to take data off a system...you are automatically in a position where

you have to worry who has access [and] what level of access they have and...

can we control it?"

Funding is also critical, Fox said. "People are now expecting to get

some funds to address the situation, but the question is, how long are these

funds going to last?" he said. "When you are working a long-term technology

development, money is crucial."

The cost of these implementations "start around $100,000 and go right

into the millions," according to Al Fox, director of public-sector operations

at webMethods.

Then there are the cultural barriers. The intelligence and law enforcement

communities do not readily relinquish information they have gathered, noted

SRA's Fox. Such cultural issues extend far beyond the nation's capital to

state and local agencies, which many observers believe form the front line

in the battle against terrorism.

Although state and federal agencies have shared information, "it has

gone largely one way from the states to the federal government," said Steve

Kolodney, vice president of state and local solutions at AMS.

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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