When purchasing supply chain software today, a buyer has to look at more than just the purchase price; it also has to factor in the time and expense of systems integration. For example, if a company installs a warehouse management system (WMS) in its distribution center, it will have to integrate that program with any other software it's using—like an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system—so that the apps can "talk" or exchange data with each other. In the past, getting two software packages to talk meant hiring a programmer or systems integrator to map a point-to-point data exchange between the applications.
Today, the growing availability of middleware is making integration both less expensive and less of a hassle. As its name suggests, middleware is a special type of software that sits in the middle between two applications. Once in place, it allows one application to gain access to specific information stored in the other application's database. For example, a WMS system might use middleware to extract order information from an ERP system. Middleware eliminates the need to have an integrator build data bridges for information flow because it comes with the bridges already assembled.
Although middleware itself has been around for almost two decades, the market has exploded in recent years. Nowadays, these programs are available from a variety of sources. Software giants like IBM and Oracle now offer these packages, as do several newcomers that deal exclusively in middleware. Big WMS vendors like RedPrairie and Manhattan Associates are also getting into the act, introducing middleware tools of their own.
As middleware for the more popular supply chain software packages becomes increasingly available, systems integrators themselves are taking advantage of middleware tools to get their jobs done quickly. "Middleware speeds up integration," says Jim McNerney, a principal at the Kansas City, Mo.-based consulting firm TranSystems. "We're seeing more and more people using these tools rather than doing a point-to-point map," he says. "You can use the middleware to create standard messages. So if a WMS requires an order and you send that request to the ERP system, you use this tool to pull out the data you need and then pass it to the WMS."
As much as today's middleware has done to simplify the process, it appears the story's not finished yet. A new generation of middleware is now under development that promises to make integration even easier. A couple of middleware developers are going beyond simply creating a set of prebuilt bridges for data exchange and adding artificial intelligence to extract data. Such intelligence extends the reach of data gathering for supply chain applications; in fact, it makes it possible to extract information from even "unstructured" databases like e-mail repositories or postings on a social media site like Twitter or Facebook.
"Let's say you send an e-mail with a purchase order," McNerney explains. "You call it a 'PO' and I call it a 'purchase order.' The [smart middleware] tools can look for P and O in the field and find it." According to McNerney, one of the pioneers in the development of "smart" middleware is Instaknow, a vendor based in South Plainfield, N.J.
With middleware becoming "smarter" and more widely used, McNerney believes that it's only a matter of time before software buyers see systems integration costs start to fall. "The use of middleware definitely lowers the cost of integration," he says. "It's not quite there yet because people aren't as familiar with all the tools out there. But in three or four years, they will be."