LANSA to Deliver Code-Less Business Process Integration for SMBs
October 2, 2007 Alex Woodie
LANSA this month plans to ship Composer, a new business process integration (BPI) solution that allows nontechnical workers to build automation into business process workflows, such as automatically alerting customers of an unexpected hiccup in delivery schedules, thereby freeing programmers for other tasks. Such BPI solutions are common in large companies, which can afford costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. With a price tag in the low tens of thousands, LANSA is betting Composer will be a hit among small and mid size System i shops.
LANSA Composer is a design and execution platform for integrating business activities involving transport and transformation of data, as well as custom business processing. The software combines two main elements, including a graphical business process workflow mapping and design tool, based on the MapForce software that LANSA has OEM’ed from Altova; and a powerful any-to-any integration execution engine, LANSA Integrator, which is included in the Composer package. Think Microsoft Visio connected to a job scheduler connected to high-powered B2B middleware, and Composer isn’t that far off.
With Composer, nontechnical business analysts will be able design and execute many of the same types of business process integrations that highly skilled RPG, COBOL, and C++ programmers could do using LANSA Integrator, but do so using “natural language” expressions, and without writing a lick of code, according to Martin Fincham, LANSA’s general manager for the EMEA region.
“We’ve allowed things to be expressed in plain English language, and actually be able to put something on the screen that me, maybe you, maybe my mother could make sense of,” Finchman said recently in a telephone interview from his office in the U.K. “If you were nontechnical, and you were to draw a business process–sketch it out, using the kind of words and labels and inputs and outputs that you would use–that would be natural language expression. And that’s what we’re doing with Composer. You’re not down into esoteric short file names or variables.”
By hiding the complexities of business process integration using visual tools, LANSA hopes to expand the potential user base of its integration technologies, while at the same time helping its customers reap the automation rewards that computer technologies were supposed to deliver in the first place. In many cases, we have become servants to our computers, feeding and caring for them at worst or, at best, acting as intermediaries linking disparate systems through the rekeying of data and other manual tasks. With LANSA Composer, regular people can gain control over computers by using the power of automation to connect these processes.
Composer allows business analysts to automate several aspects of their application integration. At a somewhat technical level, this includes the following activities: sending and receiving data and transactions in a variety of formats, including native DB2/400, XML, plain text, and CSV, in various ways, including FTP, e-mail, and fax; transforming data and transactions among those various formats; invoking Web services; orchestrating the transportation and transformation of these transactions with other events; passing variable data between the transactions; and applying logic to create multi-step business processes that can be managed as a single unit. Obviously, users still need some degree of knowledge of their systems and business processes to use the product, but they don’t need to be geek gods to get it done.
LANSA provided several examples for how System i shops might use Composer in the real world. In a manufacturing or distribution setting, say a price gets changed or inventory drops below a certain level, Fincham says. Using Composer, users could set up a trigger that automatically kicks of a process, such as starting the replenishment process with a buyer, or sending an alert to the salesmen that a certain item is out of stock. It could also be used to automatically check an ERP system for any back-orders, and then alert customers to a delay in their shipments.
The software can also provide benefits in more external settings, such as processing leads that arrive electronically through one of the many public Web site consolidator companies, such as eHealth or eInsurance, says LANSA president John Siniscal.
“Say a new business opportunity comes in through the public Web site and it gets passed to you, the underwriter, as an XML message,” Siniscal says. “You need to be able to set up processes to accept that XML message and then pass it back in through your order entry process, and then trigger off some activities regarding the acceptance or rejection of the transaction as it comes in. And all that can be done by a business analyst with LANSA Composer, whereas previously in a LANSA environment, you’d be doing an awful lot of hand cranking. We had the capability to do all that, but it had to be done by a developer.”
Finchman says such visual BPI tools have been used by Global 2000 organizations for years. “And I know that because that was actually my background for 13 years before I joined LANSA a couple of year ago,” he says. “These are solutions that ran in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars to sometimes several millions of dollars, and required large IT teams.” (Finchman worked at middleware developer MITEM in the 1980s before founding his own integration software company in the 1990s.)
By comparison, Composer will be targeted at organizations in the System i “heartland”–the small shops with only a couple of RPG developers–and will be priced accordingly, in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. (LANSA chose not to discuss specific pricing before the product is generally available.)
In some ways, LANSA is trying to do for BPI with Composer what many of the end-user reporting tools have done for business intelligence, Finchman says.
“It’s been such a great win to give these business intelligence tools, these end-user reporting tools, to the System i market, even if it’s just Client Access with ODBC-DB2 connections to Excel, because it gets that ‘dumb reporting’ burden off the developers,” he says. “What’s their value-add in writing custom reports for people? Get it off their plate so they can focus on the highly skilled things that only they can do around application maintenance and enhancement. And let the users run their own reports. Composer is kind of the same thing. We can dumb this down enough so we can do really useful things without having to be an expert programmer. That’s a double win, because they’re not bugging the very busy application development resources in a typical System i shop with stuff that they’re perfectly capable of doing themselves.”
While Composer is designed for use by nontechnical people, that doesn’t mean programmers won’t want to use it, although the typical programmer would probably prefer Integrator, which offers lower-level access. Developers tend to like to get down into the guts of things and roll their sleeves up and get kind of oily,” Finchman says.
Finchman says Composer and Integrator are stronger together. If a user finds Composer lacks a prebuilt interface for some type of activity, the programmer can design it in Integrator, and drop it into Composer, where it can be reused over and over. “And then you have a programmer and an analyst working together,” he says.
LANSA Composer is in late beta and slated to ship October 15. The first release will be available only in English, with support for additional languages, including French, coming later. LANSA is also planning to release a version of Composer that runs on the Windows Server platform. For more information, visit www.lansa.com.