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Bottleneck data integration – say yes to configuration, no to programming

Entrepreneurs have become more sceptical about their assessment of their own progress within the digital transformation. At the moment, 62 percent of companies surveyed within the “German-speaking SAP user group” (DSAG) reported their status within the digital transformation to be “not far along”.

In comparison to the 2018 investment report, this is a decline of around 10 percent. In addition, only two percent instead of five see their company as very far along in terms of digitisation. An explanation for this could be that companies now have a more realistic idea of the projects they need to tackle within this context and how complex these are.

Digitisation involves new challenges when it comes to electronic data interchange (EDI) as well as enterprise application integration (EAI). These include the growing complexity of software systems, significantly higher requirements for flexibility and agility, the ever-increasing heterogeneity of software products and end devices used, the shorter implementation period for software projects, and the requirements for resource efficiency.

“Only software solutions that break with convention and promote new thinking can help companies to successfully develop and implement forward-looking answers to the aforementioned challenges”, says Dr Martin Fischer, Managing Director of Lobster GmbH.

In line with this conviction, Lobster has been developing software for data and system integration since 2002, in particular Lobster_data. With this comprehensive standard software for data integration without programming, Fischer strives for the goals of complexity reduction, efficiency, flexibility, usability and performance – regardless of which type of integration customers hope to achieve.

With over 120 employees at the headquarters in Pöcking am Starnberger See, Germany, and 14 other locations, the Lobster team currently looks after 1000 national and international companies of varying sizes. According to Fischer, Lobster is growing at a rate of 100 new customers per year as IT heads recognise how they could optimize their processes and increase their added value with the aid of Lobster.

Mr Fischer, key terms such as Industry 4.0, e-commerce, workflows and mobile apps for office work make one thing clear: digitisation is now happening everywhere, particularly in the mid-size sector. What role does the integration of the IT systems involved play in the implementation of current digitisation strategies?
Dr Martin Fischer: Data integration and connectivity are the absolute key issues. We are experiencing an exponentiation of connection possibilities. In production, for example, this applies to more and more sensors which provide a wealth of machine and production data. Likewise, this applies at the company level where systems are increasingly being connected to one another. Production planning, e-procurement, human resources, information management systems, workflow management, accounting and bookkeeping, marketing and sales tools, ultimately logistics and supply chain management – the list is long and companies are heading step by step toward the broadest possible company-wide integration of their business applications, i.e. toward EAI. Of course, more and more data is therefore moved back and forth between the operational level and the usually business-oriented IT infrastructure. Before you can evaluate, process or analyse it, the data must first be moved from A to B. Integration is the absolute bottleneck here.

The ERP concepts propagated since the 80s, which promised a business application system from a single source and to make interfaces superfluous, seem to have been exhausted. The old best-of-breed approach is gaining new appeal. What are the consequences for the addressed interface issue?
Dr Fischer: The modularly expandable all-in-one products from large software providers are subject to a great deal of uncertainty, particularly in the mid-size sector. If I’m not sure what I need and the vendor tells me they have the xy module in the program which will solve all my pressing problems, then I’ll probably buy it.
However, I’ll then still be missing the function that I desperately need – and I have to align my company with the software rather than looking for a solution that fits around my business. With the power of lightweight virtualisation such as container technology, I can dock, configure, and quickly test highly complex software products from the cloud on my system and form an opinion without having to install anything on my own server. With modern integration software such as our Lobster_data, data can be quickly and easily transferred from one system and format to another system and format. The following applies here: yes to an interface, no to programming. Integrating new software systems – whether from the cloud or on premise – can ideally be easily achieved by an employee from the technical department. Best-of-breed is then easy to implement. In particular, this means that companies are now in a position to quickly adapt to new challenges and to meet these with a suitable software solution.

To make matters worse, many current applications must function seamlessly across companies, because suppliers, customers and service providers with very different IT systems are also involved in procurement, product management and logistics. On this basis, how can applications be developed that can be operated intuitively and completely without breaks in system continuity?
Dr Fischer: Internal data here and external data there – these are no longer categories today. Whether we take the inward-looking approach of enterprise application integration or the outward looking approach of electronic data interchange, they are both tackling the same issue. What data do you need when, from whom, and in which format? Someone has to collect the data and bring it to one or more destinations and ensure that the data exchange works. Even if there are around 10,000 industry standards, a good integration software features the right templates for this and is perfectly prepared for such requirements. It recognises the source format used. All you need to do is select a destination. Breaks in system continuity are a thing of the past. This is precisely what Lobster stands for.

You talk about “configuration instead of programming”. What exactly is the advantage here?
Dr Fischer: With configuration, you have a convenient front-end with a menu that provides you with the necessary selection options in just a few steps by entering the respective parameters. This starts with the source format, such as CSV or EDIFACT, perhaps with the industry-specific specification EDIFICE. A good software will recognise it automatically. You then select the desired transmission protocol such as OFTP, SFTP, SMTP or a more complex standard such as AS2.
Now you create the mapping of the input data to the desired target structure and naturally the output format of the data structure created in the mapping. And now you’re ready to send – once and event-controlled or regularly at specific intervals. You therefore select your individual parameters step-by-step, configure your process and you’re set. You do not require a programmer to write specific APIs that won’t even work on the next task.
The advantages are that a standard software is always up to date, users are flexible if anything is changed by the sender or recipient, you can quickly and independently connect new customers or partners  and don’t have to wait for someone in the IT department or the service provider to be free. Furthermore, you won’t need a degree in IT for the application. All you need is a little application experience. In short, you save time and money while avoiding stress. And you provide service.

What role does the cloud play in managing this interface issue?
Dr Fischer: From our perspective, the interface issue has been solved for a while. To us, it doesn’t matter at all if the data to be gathered or distributed by Lobster_data is located on your server in Bangalore, at the head office in Hamburg, at your facility in Prague, or on a server in Magdeburg.
For many of our customers it’s not a matter of either-or but rather and-as-well-as. We therefore gather data in Bangalore and Prague and deliver it to Magdeburg and Hamburg. Or the other way around. Or one way in the morning and another way in the evening. And “we” means Lobster provides the software. After two days of training, our customers are able to configure their specifications independently and flexibly adapt their data streams to their requirements.

In order to master the complexity inherent in hybrid system landscapes, automation and quality are also key in addition to integration. What does this come down to?
Dr Fischer: Automation is great once a process has been implemented and is running smoothly. Automation is also great if your system gets you on board as soon as something out of the ordinary happens. So, for example, if your server in Bangalore is down or a data transfer is not possible via the specified connection. As an IT manager, you will then be glad that you can receive an e-mail or text message alerting you about an issue in the process.
You may have even supplied alternative scenarios for the data transfer. Your system will then automatically use a different method for the transfer, and you don’t need to do anything except be relieved.
However, when it comes to interface automation, you must avoid a “black box” with custom-programmed bells and whistles. If there’s a snag or you wish to change something, you won’t have access. Programmers aren’t exactly freely available on the market. If you want IT automation, it’s best to have it in such a way that you can make your own modifications at any time. New customer, new partner, new format – no problem. And to avoid any headaches, the system should also automatically document everything. Just as a precaution for any eventuality. And of course, a new release should always be automatically available.
In terms of quality, numerous aspects need to be considered. Quality means the system works seamlessly in the background. It easily covers all industry standards. It doesn’t hit full capacity even when managing large volumes of data. You needn’t have completed a degree in hieroglyphics to understand how it works. After all, a modern front-end is generally self-explanatory. And you can logically understand the few steps from setting the source to mapping and transfer to the target system.
Quality also means that thanks to HTML5, the system works just as well on your tablet as on your smartphone. You can operate it however you like – on premise from your own server or from the cloud. There is also a service centre with employees who are familiar with the system and available to listen to your queries, help you think and suggest the right tips.

How should the interfaces be defined: through a common data model of all applications involved and a data exchange – or through application-oriented program interfaces with which the semantics of the data can be better transported?
Dr Fischer: A common data model usually introduces further (maintenance) problems, because you need a so-called persistence layer for this. As a specific example, the SAP system cannot work with a product image, but the eShop requires this in addition to the current price or stock level from the ERP system.
If you were to store this information in a common data model, the data would quickly become outdated and the data model would have to be changed if another software system was connected or an update/upgrade was carried out. Here, it is advisable to establish a direct connection via API using a tool that can implement this quickly and without programming.

Similarly, EDI is a classic tool for electronic data exchange between companies, with well-established standards such as EDIFACT or X.12. Is EDI still important, or is this approach to integration losing significance in light of the cloud?
Dr Fischer: My understanding is that the cloud is a technology which enables quick integration of new interfaces. However, it does not replace any formats. The EDI approach is still just as important as before. That being said, it is strengthened by cloud approaches and is thus more able to offer data exchange closer to real time.
Moreover, certain interfaces would never be stored in a public cloud for security reasons. Classic RDT thus persists for the time being, albeit modernised by AS2, as an example.

The cloud can have an integrating effect if it is used, for example, for procurement from market places or for collaboration in the supply chain. What is the key for it to work in practice?
Dr Fischer: In platform technology, the trend towards open, neutral systems is becoming ever more pronounced. Thanks to perfectly standardised and automated data integration, it allows stakeholders to dock into it when they need to, regardless of which system they use.
The advantage of such platforms is that they are open to anyone regardless of the provider, and all participants can use the services offered through one platform using their own systems without making large investments thanks to modern data integration.
As a specific example, one of our customers buys logistics services from large transport companies throughout Europe. For their mid-size customers, they tailor custom logistics services, which they can put together from the offers of various providers, including their own capabilities.
The platform thus allows large providers to do business wherever their strengths lie, and optimises the services for customers who can put together what they need individually from the different offerings. The individual bundle on the platform is cheaper for the buyer than finding the individual services from various providers themselves. And it’s quicker.
Since the system, which uses Lobster_scm at the front-end and Lobster_data for data integration, can be flexibly adapted to the systems and standards of providers and customers, the new service is also easily scalable – an advantage for everyone.

Could you explain this using a supply chain as an example?
Dr Fischer: For the first time, a supply chain management system has achieved full integration of all stakeholders. Efreight in Switzerland is a good example of this.
Efreight is a neutral, independent company supported by logistics industry associations which enables transparency in global supply chains. All shipment data of the supply chain is therefore gathered and stored in a database. From shipping companies to road, rail and air haulage firms, and right through to the end customer, all stakeholders have access to the data they need in real time, no matter what system they use.
It means shipping agents, including industrial firms, can set up their shipping data electronically and release that data to the selected haulier for processing. Hauliers then use this data to book cargo flights, as well as to organise transport and handle customs clearances. The shipping company involved gets direct access to actual shipping data, allowing it to optimise its own processes for routing, timing and ensuring freight capacity is used efficiently, for example.
Shipping companies, hauliers and customers alike all can all see clear data on the current status of the shipment, with no delays. Additional information, such as pictures of the way the shipment is secured, downtime assessments or temperature data, can be easily integrated. Our supply chain management software, Lobster_scm, already handles the management and integration of a wide range of data formats on platforms like these.

Not only the technology, but also organisational and human factors can be crucial for the success of integration projects. What are the biggest obstacles here in your experience?
Dr Fischer: Even though the world wants to see it differently, exceedingly few of the IT employees I know are nerds who struggle with communication. At Lobster, we employ 120 people who are part of our company because they enjoy their work.
This is partly because they have the right facilities. We have an Italian chef, a sun terrace on which we have barbecues on summer evenings, and we have modern, user-friendly software on our computers. And these are the types of products we develop. Our software is available as a container-based cloud solution. You tap the icon and Lobster_data pops up. You don’t spend hours waiting for the system to upload.
We developed a front-end with HTML5 that works just as well on a tablet as it does on a smartphone or on the big desktop at the office. Naturally with drag and drop as well as copy and paste. And you can quickly pull data from A to B using a touchscreen. Working from home is not a problem with our solutions. And you can just as easily have a quick look at your mobile phone when you’re on your way to a restaurant on Saturday night. In short, I think IT has to work. It has to be fun. And it has to make life easier. That’s what we’re working towards.

Dr Fischer, thank you very much for the interview!

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