Small and mid-size businesses often make a big mistake when they embark on  integration projects, whether they're connecting internal applications or facilitating transactions with business partners. They get mired down in creating point-to-point connections between specific applications and systems and wind up with siloed application sets that can't communicate with one another and don't create a lot of value for the business.

These businesses may assume that the price of hiring an outside firm to meet their integration needs or buying commercial products is too high -- even just for basic enterprise application integration (EAI) technology or enterprise service bus (ESB) functionality to handle routing, and message transformation. In fact, it's the point-to-point integration costs that are killing them. 'That's an ongoing recipe for disaster,' says Ken Vollmer, principal analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass. 'It sets you up for increased maintenance and additional expense.'

These days, most of the larger vendors in the integration space will give smaller companies a viable alternative for breaking into the small business market. 'It doesn't have to cost $100,000 to get started,' Vollmer says. When companies consider that they'll be able to use the same software over many projects, the $25,000 or $50,000 they may lay out for an initial effort becomes more palatable.

Wide world of integration options    

A small business owner or information technology manager might be confused by the range of integration options out there. The list includes vendors who made their mark in the traditional EAI market, including Fiorano, IONA, Tibco, Vitria, and webMethods. Platform and enterprise application vendors are also options, such as BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Software AG, and Sun Microsystems. Both groups are now focusing on comprehensive, integration-centric business process management suites that support core Web service standards, according to Forrester. The full suites may be out of financial reach, but usually vendors offer versions targeted at smaller companies. There are also the startups, including Cape Clear and PolarLake, that specialize in ESB solutions.

The technical differences also have blurred between EAI and ESB, according to Vollmer. ESB previously had an advantage for businesses in that these solutions were created on an open standards platforms. But now all of the traditional EAI vendors whose products were based on proprietary platforms have migrated to more open J2EE or .Net platforms. Additionally, several EAI vendors have also built distributed processing capability into their products, which was another traditional strong point for ESBs, Vollmer says. ESBs still retain the price advantage, though, which smaller organizations may find appealing, depending on their needs.

Many vendors can facilitate a business' move to service-oriented architectures (SOA), which feature modular, reuseable business services that are easily integrated to support internal and business-to-business (B2B) connections. Oracle, for instance, includes as part of its SOA Suite an ESB for connecting IT systems via standards-based Oracle Adapters. The suite  supports multiple industry standards for B2B integrations, such as RosettaNet and EDI, and saves the costs of building point-to-point connections s.

Service oriented architecture more popular

Small and mid-size businesses are the emerging market in terms of using SOA, says Ashish Mohindroo, senior product director for Oracle Fusion Middleware. A mind-set change is in order: As small businesses move to integrate with their trading partners, they need to consider overall business objectives, not just any one particular project. So, instead of home-growing a new system for each project, they should be thinking, '‘How can I support integration in a standardized fashion rather than a one-off solution, using a common platform that can scale over time as business increases?'' says Mohindroo. ''How can I leverage it to change the playing field here to support business needs and gain a competitive edge moving forward?''

That strategic thinking tends to get lost when organizations get caught up in building out multiple integration projects.

There are plenty of other reasons to abandon the point-to-point approach to integration, not the least of which is the move by businesses today to become process-centric organizations.

In fact, integration must start with the process, not the systems.  'If you give the problem of technology and integration to a tech, they will almost always gravitate to hooking the systems together,' says Phil Gilbert, CTO and founder of business process management vendor Lombardi Software. 'They really aren't starting with the customer or the supplier, and working back to what the process should be for how to interact with the customer and partners.'

That approach, combined with the right tools, will help turn your small business into an innovation engine -- and that's a lot better than being an integration factory.