Big vendors like Oracle, IBM and Microsoft were all over the show floor at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco at the end of last month, testimony that new web-based technologies are making their way into the enterprise. But some attendees are still wondering, what is an enterprise mashup, and what will it do for me?
Enterprise mashups are lightweight applications that combine data from two or more sources to create something more valuable than the sum of their parts. They are often developed to solve a particular problem, implemented in days rather than months, and use standards like POX (plain old XML), Atom and RSS to make sharing and subscribing to them easy. They often combine internal and external sources of data.
That's according to John Musser of ProgrammableWeb, which maintains a catalogue of public Web APIs (application programming interfaces) available to programmers for building mashups. It added 120 new APIs to its directory in the first three months of the year, up 150 percent from a year ago, and now has about 700 in total. "The slope is increasing fast," Musser said in a talk at the expo.
The mashup world is still immature, and there are hurdles for businesses that need to be addressed. Service-level agreements aren't always available, data quality is hard to assure and there are a host of security and regulatory issues to grapple with. But still some companies are taking the plunge.
Great Lakes Educational Loan Services used an external e-signature service from DocuSign to help it deal with the flood of loan requests it gets around this time each year. It combined the service with its loan application system on its website. In the first two months, 80% of its 72,000 applicants used e-signatures, which cut its costs in this area by 75%, Musser said.
Car maker Audi used to collect data manually from 20 sources, including its inventory system and competitors' websites, to do competitive analyses. Developers at the company used a data mashup tool from Kapow Technologies that now automates the process, and it took only four days to build.
Mashups began in the consumer world and are often traced back to HousingMaps.com, which combines property listings from the Craigslist bulletin board with Google Maps to make apartment hunting easier. The enterprise world lags behind the consumer world by 18 to 24 months, according to Musser, but mashup tools from vendors like IBM, Serena Software, Tibco Software, JackBe, Nexaweb and others are closing the gap.
Service-level agreements are becoming more common too. Amazon recently rolled out two levels of paid support for its hosted storage and developer services, and Google offers paid support options for its Maps API. A service ecosystem is also emerging around mashups, including data feeds from companies like Xignite and StrikeIron, and services for monitoring a Web API's performance, like one offered by WebMetrics. And big companies like BT, Orange and FedEx increasingly offer Web APIs.
Mashups can address the "long tail" of demand for internal IT projects, or the small projects that can be done quickly on an ad hoc basis, according to Musser. Just as business users have learned to customise Excel to meet their productivity needs, easy-to-use composer tools could make mashups "the Excel of the future", he said.
Duane Nason, lead web engineer with Gap, came to the Web 2.0 conference to learn what role mashups might play at the clothing retailer. He said he can imagine a useful tool that plots Gap stores or distribution centers on Google Maps, although he also wondered whether third parties usually charge to use their APIs. (Some do, some don't.)
Mashups are closely related to the SOA (service-oriented architecture) model, which promotes building loosely coupled applications that can be combined and reused. Some see mashups as a way for companies to get more return on the big investments they made in SOA.
The iPhone, with its full web browser, is driving mashups to the mobile world, said Rod Smith, an IBM vice president for emerging internet technologies. He showed a mashup on an iPhone at the expo that displays property foreclosures in the US by zip code, along with their for-sale prices. It uses APIs from StrikeIron, Trulia and Google Maps, he said, and took three weeks to create.
But he also noted a problem for enterprises that may require a cultural change to embrace mashups: IT departments that for years have been asked to protect corporate data may be unwilling to suddenly offer it as a service that can be consumed by anyone.