The missing link

Steve Frades, warns manufacturers that they must push for common Internet standards

A cataclysmic change in communications technology over the next few years will revolutionise the way manufacturing industry operates. The Internet will allow more choice of software application components to interact with mission-critical applications. Most of the technology is in place, but interface standards have yet to be defined.

Industry must push for these standards – or run the risk of being caught up in yet another cycle of costly proprietary solutions.

Component applications will be a key part of mission-critical enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications of the future. They will provide an open systems environment and remove the requirement to procure all components from the same vendor.

However, for such an approach to work effectively, standards are required for the interfaces that will enable the different components to communicate.

The standards process is already under way in the US where the Open Application Group is working on the problem. Technically, it is no more difficult to develop communications standards for software interfaces than for hardware interfaces. Agreement among the vendors, unfortunately, is likely to take years.

Internet-based communication offers big advantages: decentralised applications; accessibility to trading partners (customers, vendors and sales personnel); and rapid response to changing business requirements.

A decentralised approach is more flexible as it provides Web site autonomy or ownership without compromising corporate control. It ensures that costs can be aligned to sites that are generating revenue, and that functionality is consistent with the needs of those sites.

Decentralised applications have not been possible until now because there have always been missing pieces in the puzzle. One essential element was the `wire’ to enable the distributed applications to communicate: the Internet now provides that.

The Internet is like a globally wired office building. It is virtually ever-present, open 24 hours a day. More development energy is going into making the Internet an industrial-strength, global information superhighway than into any other technology.

But the fear of the unknown is powerful, and there is scepticism about the level of security. Some companies opt instead for costly wide area networks (WANs). However, an IT application that has been properly developed can run on the Internet and on WANs.

Running a decentralised IT application is achieved by building from a set of `plug and play’ object-oriented application components that are integrated over a network using message bus technology.

Components will simply `plug’ into the application and inter-operate. One such component might be order entry, another might be inventory control or planning. Components will no longer need to be supplied from a single vendor; users will be able to select from `best of breed’ to configure systems consistent with their needs.

It will mean that small companies with brilliant ideas could be significant players in the market.

Innovative suppliers will develop `application adapters’ that enable existing applications to operate with application components of the future. And users will reap the advantages of different, more efficient, products and lower prices.

Even without the necessary standards in place, the IT industry will offer solutions that enable manufacturers to start evolving their systems. Instead of users replacing everything at once, a step-by-step improvement path will be possible. This time firms can avoid the costly total replacement trap many companies set for themselves when they first invested in proprietary computer solutions.

If the user community does not push for standardisation and does not choose an evolutionary path to component and communications based solutions, it could suffer the same plight again.

An example of the impact of standards is the computer hardware business. The Intel-based PC provided standardisation for component hardware and operating system software. This brought in competition, prices came down, and excellent application solutions became available. Users were no longer held captive by high-priced, proprietary systems.

People say that component applications are a pipe dream. There is no doubt, though, that the dream will soon become reality and it will happen more quickly if the industry increases demand for application interface standards.

Manufacturers, like most users, have the opportunity to get the systems they need. They need to ensure that they understand how Internet applications are developing – whatever the speed and complexity of changes. It is up to users to make a firm stand and push suppliers to work towards common standards.

Steve Frades is product manager for Objects, FourthShift Corporation.