In many medium-sized companies whole work processes – also known as workflows – are sometimes set up and run using a string of Excel spreadsheets or Access databases. They can range from account management to ingoing payment systems, invoicing or bookkeeping. These systems were often devised by staff to make it easier to get the job done and they have to be updated constantly. Over time, they become part and parcel of the company knowledge base. Sometimes they even become established “business-crucial” applications.
The reasons for this trend are the justifiable demands placed by medium-sized businesses on software solutions: first and foremost, software solutions should be inexpensive and help the company reduce costs. This does not just apply to the cost of development in proportion to the system’s usefulness, economic viability is also a factor of ongoing operating costs and the cost of maintenance. A system has to be flexible and versatile. If a business process changes, then so too should the software solution – quickly, and if necessary, with extensions. The solution must match the individuality of the company and reflect specific business processes. It’s rare to find a standard solution that meets all such criteria. So it makes sense to integrate existing company systems and tried-and-trusted software and merge everything into one IT system “cast from the same die”.
The cost of new information systems and integrated solutions targeted at medium-sized companies varies widely. Solutions range from low-end systems with all of the known deficits – the sort of tortuous maintenance, high error levels and low or non-existent integration offered by many one-off applications – to high-end solutions offering standard packages and full-blown enterprise resource planning (ERP). The cost of installation, development, upgrades and subsequent operation is immense, even though some areas of the business are not covered and the systems only focus on standard processes. Adaptations require specialist input, tying the company to the product and the provider.
To offer the company a solution at the medium to lower end of the scale on costs, the Object IT Steinbeis Transfer Center developed and created a modular system offering key technology infrastructure as a core functionality making it possible to use the system as a tool kit for rapid application development. For example, a provider-independent database interface is already in place and ready for use “out-of-the-box”. So is a link to different directory services for authentification and authorization, as well as integration with known workgroup solutions.
As a basis for introducing the new modular system, it made sense to use a LAMP platform (Linux, Apache Webserver, MySQL database and PHP language). Another benefit: low license and hardware fees.
To set up applications quickly with this platform, which mainly entails working out the business logic and displaying data in the right way, an automated program flow con trol is embedded in the Object IT framework. This control logic makes the run-time environment available for the business processes. All you then need for the software system is the business logic and data display (HTML pages). The business processes are worked out with the customer and then captured in a formal work flow description.
A key feature of the application framework is the facility to map out and model the page flow and the business logic between each page with simple “status-crossover diagrams”. These diagrams consist of a few graphical elements so they are quick and easy to understand. The page flow is modeled and worked through directly from the framework. This makes it extremely efficient to demonstrate the requirement analysis to the customer, who can actually add requirements to the developing application. The Object IT framework also offers a fully developed process model, a control for the requirement analysis process and a development model for programming specific solutions.
The Steinbeis experts in Filderstadt are constantly updating the framework. For one of their latest versions they are planning to model - directly with the customer, on the screen - the page flow and business logic between page crossovers and then transfer this into the framework in the form of a generated configuration. It will then be no problem to make quick changes to the program flow and react even faster to new customer requests.
Application development with the Object IT framework is an inexpensive way to introduce application logic, as the technology infrastructure is already in place and the only costs incurred are for working out the business logic, and displaying the data and the requirement analysis. Apart from low procurement and operating costs for the open source software, there are hardware costs but these are low compared to standard commercial software solutions and thus easy on resources.
For small and medium-sized companies, the lightweight Object IT framework is an ideal integrated and efficient platform for specifying, designing and developing information systems, even business-crucial applications, quickly and cheaply.
Dipl.-Ing. (MSc) Björn Kübler
Steinbeis Transfer Center object-IT (Filderstadt)