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Making mash-ups

Mash-ups are widely available for public use on the Internet, but are only just beginning to fulfil their potential in business environments. Organisations are looking at ways in which they can integrate mash-ups with existing software to display information collected from multiple data sources in order to aid business efficiency.

Market watcher Gartner has categorised the benefits of emerging mash-up tools to corporate buyers into five elements: application flexibility; faster application delivery; development productivity; end-user empowerment; application innovation. That flexibility is perhaps best shown when a single mash-up interface is used to replace multiple different applications which would otherwise have to be used simultaneously to display the same data.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer, for instance, uses an Intranet-based business intelligence (BI) mash-up to deliver ad hoc query, forecasting, planning, and modelling to its product research executives making investment decisions.

The mash-up is based on Composite Software's Information Server platform, which takes information from factory, project and portfolio management, inventory and supply chain databases, and uses a combination of other tools, including BusinessObjects WEBi reports, Spotfire DecisionSite analystics, SharePoint Designer and ASP net pages for presentation.

Mash-ups also allow Pfizer to develop new software tools which help Pfizer's researchers share information more quickly, and let end-users configure their own mash-ups and test them out before they go into production.

Mash-up speed gains

Companies using mash-up tools are attracted also by faster application development, partly through heavy re-use of existing user interface elements, widgets, or mashlets. The same interface can be used again and again to display or process different types of content from various different sources, saving considerable time and effort.

'As the HomeServe example demonstrates [see box, p51], you don't want contact centre agents constantly burrowing into all these different applications - you want them talking to customers,' points out Corizon vice president of product strategy and marketing David Davies, 'so it is a killer case for a mash-up to take the useful bits out of all those other applications and stitch them together.'

A good example of this comes from the Sennheiser Group, the multinational company that manufactures headphones, microphones, and wireless transmission systems, used Convertigo's C-EMS software to create a mash-up for its network of distributors in France. The mash-up sources data from an IBM AS/400 mainframe computer, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in real time to integrate data from the Sennheiser product catalogue with up-to-date pricing, stock, and order information. The implementation took just a few weeks, and the creation of the mash-up application required only about 20 days instead of the several months which were initially planned for the development of an application programming interface (API) which would have been needed to gain access to and re-use the information contained in Sennheiser's existing eCommerce application. The mash-up has also speeded up the Sennheiser France supply chain process because distributors no longer have the hassle of obtaining the same information from Sennheiser by phone, reports Jacques Cohen, Sennheiser France's CIO.

Gaining access to the data stored in proprietary or legacy applications is another key benefit of mash-ups for enterprise users, not least because the relevant APIs simply do not exist. Marcus Herzog is managing director for research and development at Lixto software, which offers data and Web process integration and reporting tools that companies use to collate data for presentation within mash-ups they develop themselves.

'In our case, we do not need to rely on APIs,' he reports. 'We can use data from sources which companies could not otherwise access because there are simply no APIs available' So mash-ups give you a whole new range of information sources that companies can bring into their own infrastructure and make use of.' Lixto provided its Web process integration software to German automotive part supplier voestalpine Gutbrod, which pulls price agreement data from its customers' Web portals then processes them in Gutbrod's SAP database systems.

End-user customisation

Because they have no native data store or business logic, mash-ups are able to derive and interchange information from anywhere and present that data in a variety of different visual formats which can be easily altered by end-users themselves, without intervention by IT personnel. By making these presentation layer mash-ups simple to use, non-technical users are able to customise their screens, and add in the content they want to use, although pre-defined templates can also be quickly and easily distributed, and altered, where applicable. This allows a certain amount of innovation and experimentation in testing what works best for both the IT department and the end-user, a flexibility very uncommon in other types of corporate software.

IBM's jStart group, which specialises in developing new, emerging technology for commercial use, has demonstrated 'trouble ticket management' mash-up for communications hardware and software provider Avaya based on its Mash-up Center platform, for example. The application gives call centre or helpdesk staff the ability to pick and choose different widgets to display on screen whilst handling enquiries - from previous trouble tickets, to customer and field service engineer information, and bar charts displaying ticket severity and status, plus the ability to initiate a communications session from the same interface.

Lixto Software's Herzog says one of the best things about mash-ups is that companies can easily test a mash-up to make sure that it can handle various different types of data before it is deployed in a live environment. If changes are needed, they can be made quickly.

'It can take time to implement and build some initial applications, but then you can do much faster prototyping, and integration for business applications,' Herzog concludes.

Mash-up's versus SOA?

Analysts have predicted that sales of enterprise mash-up tools will appropriate revenue owned by service orientated architecture (SOA) platforms. Certainly, there are similarities between the two technological approaches - primarily around re-usability of existing software components which delivers rapid development of new applications, and the ability to draw data from a variety of different sources into that application interface, including legacy applications, such as mainframe databases.

But SOA defines an architectural approach that makes sure the underlying software environment can support new processes and applications, whereas mash-ups concern themselves only with the application itself. As such, both can happily co-exist, and in some environments elements of an SOA framework are needed to support mash-ups in the first place.

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