For many businesses, agility means the ability to access and apply information when and where it is needed. On paper, achieving agility is often a relatively simple proposition: after all, the theory is simple (the information contained here, must move to there, for this reason). In practice, it can be devilishly difficult.

That much is clear through the field experiences of Eric Sommer, Managing Director an information integration specialist and IBM Premier Partner CommerceQuest South Africa. “In reality, moving information between disparate systems and geographically dispersed sites comes with a multitude of challenges. These affect real time and batch situations; where transactions and other information is fed through to external service providers, hindrances can include a multitude of often scrambled protocols,” he says.

What these difficulties add up to, in short, is financial consequences. “Organisations with which we have worked have experienced financial losses as a result of an inability to meet service level agreements, and having to subsequently pay penalties. Behind the financial losses are other issues, including the possibility of losing its customers; IT support suffering high rates of attrition as operators attempt to deal with lost files and transactions; poor response times and having to make sense of a multitude of applications across disparate systems,” he explains.

Such situations tend to get worse, not better, as business growth increases complexity. “Acquisitions exacerbate problems. With more systems requiring information, further issues arise, such as special characters not being recognized by some applications, problems with data validation and the duplication of data streams,” Sommer continues.

Shifting information from one place to another also depends on connectivity; both the physical stability of lines and bandwidth have an impact on the reliability of transfers.

Know the problem, design the solution

Clearly, such situations are untenable. “The first step is to identify the most pressing issues before setting out to provide an appropriate solution,” says Sommer.

With integration challenges, he says the answer lies in designing a more effective middleware layer to provide for the accurate, unfettered and efficient transfer of data from one place to another. To achieve this, he says CommerceQuest applies IBM Websphere MQ and IBM Websphere MQ-FTE (MFT). “The establishment of a middleware layer provides the ability to transfer data between clients and service providers without errors or protocol challenges. Just this solution provided a major gain: achieving confidence that data is in fact being transferred successfully – rather than leaving IT staff scratching their heads about whether or not files were sent,” Sommer notes.

Time is money: How compression changes the game

However, a further problem relates to the time taken for electronic transmissions; in many cases, companies needing to send batches of data still resort to the clumsy and decidedly analogue process of burning and hand-delivering DVDs. Pointing out the absurdity of such a risk-prone process, Sommer says solving such an issue is always a high-priority task. “For example, one client was experiencing transmission times for month end files of up to 36 hours; these would often fail, resulting in payments not being paid on time. The upshot was that key suppliers weren’t getting paid, the account would be put on hold and the flow of business would be interrupted. This had the IT department under the harsh scrutiny of management.”

The tools CommerceQuest uses to solve such problems lie in the compression which is built-in to WebSphere MQ, which Sommer says, had a rather dramatic effect. “The time for this particular data transfer dropped from 36 hours to just 30 minutes, with no lost transactions and no missed payment dates.

Real time must be real time

While many organisations have some level of bespoke software within their environments, it often comes with a considerable caveat: difficulty of support. When CommerceQuest found real time transactions being handled by an unreliable home-grown system, it looked to a standard, proven solution: IBM WebSphere Message Broker Express.

“The first problem solved using Message Broker Express was in the batch environment. This is where transactions were built up and the data required alteration and other oddities and manipulations.” Sommer explains. Additionally, he says Message Broker Express resolved the issue of data stream duplication by splitting the files into correct data sets before sending to target systems.

Achieving agility

The combination of a clear plan for data exchange, facilitated by appropriate middleware solutions such as IBM’s WebSphere, and implemented by information integration specialists, means businesses can take the necessary steps to achieving improved levels of performance and agility. “Companies that are equipped to use their information effectively tend to become more efficient, reliable and profitable. Information flow to and from remote sites, and to and from external service providers, is for many companies an absolute necessity. When it is done right, it should be so solid that there should seldom be any need to even think about it.” says Sommer.

Where transaction failures are experienced and where transactions are lost or the turnaround times are more than a sub-second, he says work needs to be done. “The tools and the expertise are available to eliminate these restrictions to business. Old systems of data integration are considerably limited when compared with the newer tools now available which deliver rock solid, reliable and easy to manage systems. If your business is experiencing an inability to easily and efficiently exchange data and become an agile organisation, you may need to ask why?” he concludes.