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Composite Applications

Easy-to-build software that works the way you do.
Peter Krass, CFO IT
November 17, 2003

For decades software programmers have been trying to make themselves obsolete. Some of them, anyway. They haven't had much success, try as they might to invent software that would let nonprogrammer users create applications as easily as they create documents or spreadsheets. But such programmers soldier on. The newest attempt at their long-standing goal is known as composite applications.

A composite application is software that combines the elements of a business activity in a single coordinated application and user interface. It can also provide real-time access to all needed data feeds and control systems, with various facets of the program "talking" to one another in order to get a job done. And because a composite application uses industry standards, it can work across all systems and networks: it's typically accessed through a Web browser so that any Internet-connected person can use it.

Essentially, composite applications create a large application that is made up of several smaller applications (often including existing applications, both off-the-shelf and internally developed) and that more closely matches a company's business processes than any single package could. The most suitable jobs for composite apps are "cross-silo" business processes that involve multiple departments. Examples include demand management, supply-chain automation, and everyone's current favorite, regulatory compliance.

How It Works
The user of a composite application sees a virtual "dashboard," a kind of Web portal that combines the various applications needed to complete a business process. For example, a composite application designed to provide an end-to-end solution for bill of materials would combine all or parts of several off-the-shelf applications, including procurement, MRP (materials requirement planning), PLM (production life-cycle management), sourcing, and auctions. One goal is to spare users the labor of having to use multiple applications to complete a given task. Another, larger goal is to allow users to create their own dashboards, further enhancing productivity. Right now dashboards are built by tech-savvy consultants or internal staff, but the aim is to put technology at the service of what people actually do by allowing applications to be broken up and recombined to suit any need.

Composite applications take advantage of another much-vaunted emerging technology: Web services, a set of standards that allows applications to share data and interact over the Internet. As Ronald Schmelzer, a senior analyst with ZapThink LLC, a research firm in Waltham, Massachusetts, says, "At end of day, it's the movement toward these architectures and standards that's making composite applications happen."

Why You Should Care
Composite applications can boost productivity, save money, and improve operations. They're also speedy to build and maintain. A typical composite-applications project is currently measured in weeks, a sharp contrast to custom applications that typically take 12 to 18 months, says Narry Singh, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at software vendor Commerce One in Pleasanton, California. At some point, it may be measured in minutes.

Composite applications also save money, according to Sandra Rogers and Rob Hailstone, analysts at research firm IDC. They have found that developing composite applications is roughly 30 to 40 percent less expensive than more-traditional approaches to software development and implementation. In theory, training costs are almost nil, because the dashboard icons should reveal familiar or intuitive interfaces. Other benefits include quick adaptations to changing business rules, less manual processing, and better leverage of existing systems and resources.

Where It Stands
The computer industry is scratching its collective head trying to decide if composite applications is the best possible name. Other candidates include smart application solutions, suggested by software vendor Seec Inc.; business-process fusion, which analyst firm Gartner suggests; and service-oriented architecture, from ZapThink.

Regardless of which label sticks, the approach has attracted a long list of vendors. Specialty vendors have emerged to offer the applications, including Seec, Commerce One, and Kenamea. But traditional software companies, including Oracle, SAP, IBM, Microsoft, and PeopleSoft, are also starting to offer composite-application tools, in some cases by acquiring smaller specialty vendors and offering their products under big-name labels.

What 2004 Will Bring
In theory, because composite applications use software components, they can be built by a trained business analyst rather than require the services of a full-fledged programmer. "Just as you don't need to know how a Web browser works to create a Web page," says Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst at ZapThink, "you won't need to know how one software actually interfaces with another to build a composite application."

But today most composite-application development is still complex enough that it must be done by professional systems integrators or IT staff. "The technology is there," says John Blair, chief technical officer at Kenamea, a San Francisco­based vendor of composite software. "Now it's a matter of moving it into the mainstream."

To do so, software vendors are pushing on several fronts. Some are hoping for new standards that will ease the way. Others are creating rather than waiting. Seec, for example, has developed a process that lets business analysts define business rules and logic in an Excel spreadsheet. The process, already in use at Ohio Casualty Insurance, then automatically converts the Excel entry into an executable program.

"That's the dream, where we all want to get to," says Seec chairman and co-founder Ravi Koka. But fulfillment of that dream—for it to be widely used—is still years away, he adds. Accenture and other systems integrators can in all likelihood sleep easy, for now.

Go Composite, Know Return?
Pro forma cost comparison of discrete vs. composite approaches to software development. Source: IDC, August 2003
Initial implementation costsDiscrete, multiple
Unified platform with composite applications
Software (initial license)
Prerequisite software
(initial license)
Estimated total implementation
Ongoing annual costs
(Based on four quarterly updates)
Discrete, multiple toolsUnified platform with composite applications
Prerequisite software
(ongoing license)
(ongoing license)
Estimated annual maintenance