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The problem of integrating ERP applications is as old as ERP itself. Not long after ERP suites first debuted in the early 1990s--touted, ironically, as panaceas for corporate integration woes--companies have struggled to improve the level of integration between their ERP packages and other applications such as legacy systems and e-commerce sites.

"The issue goes back as far as I know," laments David Connelly, president and CEO of the Open Applications Group (OAG), a nonprofit consortium focused on e-business and application integration.

To deal with the problem, developers have several options for integrating their legacy, e-commerce, CRM and other applications with ERP suites from vendors such as SAP AG, PeopleSoft, Oracle and J.D. Edwards. Each integration approach, naturally, comes with its own challenges, and each has limitations.

Developers can use off-the-shelf data-sharing products such as middleware, EAI tools and ERP connectors. Alternatively, they might opt to develop their own homegrown connector components. Or they can turn to the application programming interfaces (APIs) shipped with the ERP systems themselves. But, as you might expect, each method is not suitable for all integration projects.

"It depends on what you're integrating," says Eric Anderson, president of the Portland, Oregon, based ERP-Link Corp., a consultancy that specializes in ERP and e-business issues. "Are you trying to integrate at the transaction level, document level or data level? How close to real-time do you need the integration to be? What you're trying to accomplish and what you're integrating will determine the method you'd use."

Michael Triosi, president of Front End Solutions, a company that offers ERP integration services, uses a 65 percent rule of thumb. If the off-the-shelf integration tools only address 60 to 65 percent of the business processes you need, he says, then customization is a better alternative in terms of functionality and overall return on investment.

"You're probably better off working with a set of custom components," Triosi says. If you need to customize the ERP connector to the native application right off the bat, then most likely you're changing the native application too much. "You're really ending up with a customized solution anyway. And you're going to be dealing with too many different products at that point. You might as well develop a custom application and not mess up a Seybold or PeopleSoft enterprise too much." This is important. he says, because the applications will need to be upgraded and patched over time. "Every time you get into doing that, then there is a lot of cost associated with changing your interface."



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