Cicero Evolves Application Integration through Desktop Automation
Published: July 14, 2009
by Alex Woodie
Enterprise application integration is one of those painfully complex IT topics that people tend to shy away from. Want a sure-fire way to clear out a business meeting or induce sudden narcosis? Start debating the merits of various object request broker architectures. One IT vendor that's trying to make enterprise integration more approachable is Cicero, a North Carolina outfit that develops a desktop automation product that offers a non-invasive way to connect applications running on all types of platforms, System i included.
Neil Crane, director of product development for Cicero, has lots of experience dealing with the physical and emotional ramifications of discussions over enterprise integration. "As soon you say the word 'integration,' eyes gloss over," Crane says. "It's something we struggle with in the market every time" we go into discussions for a potential deal.
The root of the problem, Crane says, is the fear that that Cicero's brand of integration represents a revolutionary paradigm shift that will have a huge impact by requiring customers to rip out all their old stuff and rebuild it according to the new paradigm.
While Cicero doesn't want customers to rip out their old stuff, there is valid reason for the fear, as costly and tumultuous paradigm shifts have abounded throughout the history of computer integration, according to Crane, who cut his teeth on some of the original MQ Series implementations while working for IBM UK in the 1990s.
First came batch processing on the mainframe, which revolutionized business and was a true paradigm shift, Crane says. "Then OLTP came along, and we had things like CICS and terminals and real-time transaction processing, and a paradigm shift. Then you have MQ Series on the mainframe and the midrange system, which brings you near-time, asynchronous computing, and that was a paradigm shift. And the PC was a paradigm shift.
"It was a paradigm shift to get batch and mainframe and OLTP programmers to think about asynchronous programming. Windows programmers had gone through that jump. They had gone from sequential programming to asynchronous message-based programming. They'd made that leap. But trying to teach [that] to a mainframe guy was tough because it was a paradigm shift," Crane says.
So when Crane or another Cicero representative meets with a prospect and starts talking about enterprise integration through desktop automation, it should come as no surprise that painful memories of past paradigm shifts should trigger the ubiquitous IT dry-eye syndrome. (After all, fight or flight is not an appropriate response in the 21st century data center.)
Yes, desktop automation--or integrating Windows applications that live on the desktop with ERP and CRM business process that run on servers--does represent another paradigm shift, according to Crane. But in the interest of not losing customers' interest, he chooses to couch the discussion using more tactical terms.
"Moving integration down to the desktop is another one of those what I would call revolutionary paradigm shifts that some people can't get their heads around," Crane says. "But we're trying to get away from integration and talk more about automation and trying to get people to see that there's something different."
Cicero's World of Desktop Automation
Cicero's world of application integration and desktop automation starts with Cicero Studio, which the company calls a "configuration toolkit." This product does everything from creating simple, behind-the-scenes connections between applications to creating full-blown composite desktops. For every integration task that Cicero performs, no invasive changes to source code are required.
Cicero Studio can take advantage of application APIs where they exist. But for many desktop applications without APIs, Cicero must map an application's onscreen elements--such as data entry fields, function keys, buttons, and drop-down boxes--to gain access to the applications' business processes. For hard-to-handle applications without defined APIs, such as customized Lotus Notes or Java applications, Cicero supplies its own connectors.
For customers with big integration problems, a new HTML-based composite desktop may be in order. Cicero's unified desktop relies on book, chapter, and tab navigational elements to guide users through required business processes in the correct sequence.
"We take existing screens and present those applications to the user in a tactical-oriented component desktop," says Crane, who likens the Cicero desktop to a Windows taskbar. "We wrap those screens in new navigational elements. You tab to the process, and follow the steps in the process. So in one tab, you might be in a cloud-based CRM application, and the next might be behind the scenes in an AS/400 financial application, and the information in the CRM has been pre-populated into a green-screen form."
This automation and pre-population of fields and forms is the key to driving efficiency among Cicero customers. Instead of requiring users to cut and paste data between Windows apps or launch 5250 or 3270 sessions to enter data into a System i or System z application, users can automatically accomplish these tasks from within the Cicero environment.
Cicero mostly understands things at the platform level, not the application level, Crane says. "I don't need to know about your specific AS/400 application. I know how to talk to the AS/400 data stream intelligently. So it doesn't really matter what the application is. I can get information out of it," he says.
Cicero's closest competitor in the desktop automation space is OpenSpan, a company whose offerings we covered six weeks ago. Then there are the masses of Web portal developers, but they take a different approach to desktop integration that doesn't offer deep support for the huge number of Windows, COM, Web, and Java applications, Crane says.
"There are a number of people who claim to develop unified desktops," Crane says. "But really what they're doing is building a new application, and then doing integration on the server and simply consuming Web services. That's great and a perfectly valid approach. It just takes longer and costs more, and it's not going to fit everybody, and it doesn't necessarily solve all the problems because you're still going to have desktop productivity applications that you don't own that you can't get to. You leave those out in the cold."
Most of Cicero's customers are in the financial services business, and many Cicero seats have been installed in call centers, where the System z mainframe is a more popular platform choice than the System i server. Just the same, Cicero has had to deal with popular System i applications such as JD Edwards from time to time.
Cicero Studio customers have other options. An application integration project created in Cicero Studio (an entity called a "gene") can be output in a Web services protocol. There are add-on components for single sign-on (SSO) environments and virtualized environments, an integrated de-bugger, and "productivity packs" that streamline composite application development.
Last week, Cicero launched version 6.5 of its platform. New features in this release include certification on Windows 7, new support for Java 1.6 SDK controls, native support for .NET, support for dynamic Web pages, and support for Lotus Notes version 8, among other capabilities. Cicero costs about $650 per seat. For more information, visit www.ciceroinc.com.
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