SOA Without the Middleware, Without the Pressure
October 27, 2008 Dan Burger
Infor, with its “Open SOA” initiative just beginning to spew out products for its massive ERP software installed base, is aiming for that customer dream of actually reducing IT complexity while increasing interoperability and reducing costs. Can it make that dream come true or does that only occur in the marketing department’s dream world? With more than 18,000 ERP software customers running on the IBM System i, and another 50,000 or so running ERP on other platforms, there are a lot of eyes on Infor.
The Infor view of SOA is interesting because of its open approach, which avoids the reliance on proprietary middleware, its Linux flavor, its evolving roll out strategy (no pressure), and its “no cost” pricing.
The Middleware is Built In
Everyone knows IBM’s SOA strategy is built around WebSphere. That brand includes a lot of stuff, but at its foundation is the plumbing–the middleware–that is central to IBM’s interoperability goals. In simple terms, it is another layer of abstraction. In the case of System i, it rides above the platforms, exposing fields and data streams as services, and allows companies to combine them in new ways.
When Infor began development of its SOA concept, it steered clear of WebSphere. That’s not to single out WebSphere. Infor intentionally avoided all third-party middleware.
“We have all the middleware we need embedded in our Open SOA,” says Bruce Gordon, Infor’s chief technology officer. “If we used WebSphere or any other middleware, there would be royalties to pay and restrictions imposed.” He says Infor decided to use its own source components and eliminate the extra layer of technology that WebSphere and the other middleware options require. Gordon says this allows Infor products to be less complex, less costly, and, because it is based on open source, there is not the vendor lock-in aspect that causes companies to be wary.
“We had to make sure that what we delivered was indeed open,” says Gordon. “We don’t want to be a middleware vendor or a tools vendor. Infor is an application vendor and we do not want to be anything else.”
Open SOA uses standard XML-based integration framework based on the Open Applications Group Interoperability Standard (OAGIS). Infor also uses OSGI, short for the Open Services Gateway Initiative, a standard way of packaging and delivering software within the Java environment. These decisions are responsible, Gordon says, for creating products that are easy to install (a self-diagnosis feature is part of the package), easy to configure, and easy to develop. Everything is easy, easy, easy, right?
That’s easy for Infor to say.
The early adopters of service oriented architecture have had a lot to say about complexity being understated on the front end of SOA projects. This is one reason project costs have soared and after implementation costs have not lived up to expectations in a majority of cases. Overall, the ROI on SOA has not been great.
You could chalk this up to SOA lessons that are still being learned and that the learning curve is getting shorter as SOA becomes more mature. There’d be some truth in that. But Gordon mentioned a few other factors.
His advice is to resist the temptation to go “all in” as if you were playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. It’s better to start out small. (Infor is taking the incremental approach to its own product roll-out. More on that in a little bit.) Move forward cautiously and develop your expertise. Speed will come with time. Gordon claims the complexity is built into the system so the implementers aren’t constantly working with their backs to the wall, but let’s not forget Open SOA has only limited testing to date.
It’s reasonable to believe that companies that have been pressured into SOA are not seeing the kind of ROI that gets people excited.
The Linux Factor
Infor planned for its System i customers to run Open SOA products on Linux. It’s all about choice. Java is the development language and Gordon says the components Infor produces will perform very well in a Linux partition or a separate Linux server running alongside i OS, which will be handling the majority of the ERP workload until a company gets deeper into the incremental product roll-out.
“The reason we used Java,” Gordon says, “is so we can use the Power processor. Our customers running on the iSeries can have a Linux partition where they can run all the new components on the Linux partition, while the iSeries stuff can be running behind it on the other partitions.”
It’s true there are a lot of System i customers that run multiple operating systems to satisfy all their IT requirements. It’s also true that running Java applications on i OS can be a performance drag, even with the Java performance enhancements built into i 6.1. It’s not like Infor came out of left field with its Java on Linux plan.
IBM must be pleased with this because it fits right in with the Power Systems plan of running i OS, AIX, and Linux on one box. A separate partition or separate box allows workloads to be better balanced. Gordon points out one example of why this makes sense by predicting that businesses will be increasing the amount of reports they produce and the reporting environment will be a drain on the CPU and disk that production systems need. By putting reporting into a partition, for example, the demand on the production system will be reduced. You don’t need IBM or Infor to tell you Java applications can run in any of the Power Systems’ partitions or that it offers a great deal of scalability.
The Infor Product Road Map
Infor began its Open SOA program three years ago, but the history goes back to the late 1990s. There was no company called Infor at that time and the ERP brands that are now aggregated at Infor–BPCS, MAPICS, SSA, Baan, Geac, Infinium, plus others–were operating independently in the AS/400 ecosystem. Gordon was already thinking about, and implementing, a similar system designed and optimizing supply networks in the distribution industry.
The first group of service-enable products is just making its way into the marketplace now. The key to what is coming down the road is a product called MyDay, a role-based user interface that deals with key performance indicators (KPIs) and task management functions. The interface is customized to the role of the person using the information. It will eventually include 150 out-of-the-box roles, but in its current state it offers 16.
MyDay is available for several of Infor’s non-System i ERP suites: ERP SyteLine, ERP Visual, and ERP LN. System i users of Infor’s System 21, a U.K.-based iSeries product (the old JBA product) are scheduled to have MyDay in the second quarter of 2009. Gordon says BPCS LX users will be working with MyDay by March 2009, and BPCS 6.1 customers will have it by the end of 2009. MAPICS XA customers are scheduled to have it in Q3 2009.
Infor’s timeline for releasing its SOA-enabled products includes a first quarter 2009 release for customer management products such as WebStore, Pricing, and Inventory Control.
In the third quarter of 2009, Infor will bring to market financial management products such as costing, consolidation, budgeting, forecasting, and journaling. The customer management category will see products for configuration and taxation. In resource management, products such as material handling and shipping execution are scheduled for general availability. And in the asset management group, warranty advisor and integrated planning products will be available.
The product roll-out timeline continues into 2010 and 2011 with specific release dates noted. However, none of these timelines are specific to the System i platform, so check with the sales team at Infor if you are wondering about i-specific products.
You Want How Much for That?
Infor has a pricing scheme for its SOA-enabled products that begin with MyDay and it plans no additional charge for the new software as long as the customer is on an active maintenance plan. The company also says it will not be raising maintenance charges.
Seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?
Gordon says its part of the process that allows customers to evolve and augment old environments with new products rather than forcing them to upgrade software to the latest versions.
“The IT industry has never had software that allows components that work with each other with standard interfaces,” Gordon says. “My analogy is a 747 aircraft. Say the engine breaks. Does the airline have to replace the entire aircraft? No, but that’s the way we’ve been doing it in ERP software. Why not just get a new engine?”
A lot of companies are interested in the goal of compatibility not only among their internal IT systems, but also in their relationship with their IT vendors. We’ll keep you posted on how Infor is helping them succeed on both fronts.