Oracle products: How Fusion Middleware measures up for SOA integration

Alan R. Earls

When is Oracle Fusion Middleware (OFM) a good choice, and for whom? It's a simple question with a complex answer. Like the famous quip about Oakland -- there's no there, there -- OFM isn't just one thing, it's a range of things. Things spanning multiple services, such as integration services,business intelligence, collaboration, content management as well as Java EE and developer tools.

checklist on clipboard

In fact, rather like the proverbial Swiss Army Knife, OFM has something for everyone. Taken as a whole, OFM offers increased agility and reduces time to market. However, unlike that multi-purpose tool, the elements of OFM are compatible, but discrete -- united by a brand rather than a single look and feel. While OFM can deliver a lot, it may not be a fit for every organization, according to practitioners and experts.

OFM can be viewed as an Oracle marketing package, as it clumps a collection of various back-end Oracle products under one umbrella, said Les Hazlewood, founder and CTO of Stormpath, a software security tools and services firm. The suite approach, however, can complicate finding an appropriate fit of OFM for specific enterprises, he said.

With that in mind, it should be noted the breadth and integration capabilities of the OFM product suite can reduce the need for some in-house development, possibly speeding time to market. The suite has tools for integrating heterogeneous applications, automating processes, scaling applications and other tasks.

The central value proposition of the OFM product suite is that it's breadth and integration capabilities correlate to architects having less to build, which can result in faster time to market, Hazelwood said. Oracle asserts OFM has several capabilities, including:

  • able to integrate heterogeneous applications
  • capable of automating processes
  • can scale applications to meet demand
  • helps simplify security and compliance
  • manages lifecycles of documents
  • spans and leverages existing infrastructure

Oracle products, Fusion Middleware in practice

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) uses OFM to integrate applications across three U.S. campuses and 150 global online offerings, according to CIO Cindy Bixler.

It [the Oracle system] really helped us do something that would have been almost impossible, otherwise.

Cindy Bixler

"In order to serve all those different entities and provide for identification management, we needed some robust software," Bixler said. She explained that in higher education, there is an immense degree of natural churn as students apply, enroll in courses, change courses, leave or graduate. ERAU must manage some 90,000 accounts, Bixler said, including students, alumni and applicants.

The old legacy approach, prior to the adoption of OFM, was a patchwork of independent systems with little integration. "The average user probably had 10 to 15 different user names to access all the systems they needed to use," Bixler said. Some efforts to integrate began with Active Directory and, earlier, within Novell. Still, people had to keep track of many passwords and "it wasn't very secure," she admitted.

Single sign-on was a vision and goal that seemed elusive. However, about three years ago, ERAU ended up looking at Oracle products and adopting elements of OFM to provide that capability. "We were not an Oracle shop per se; we did have an Oracle footprint but we also had a lot of Microsoft assets," Bixler said.

ERAU worked with Savvis, an Oracle Corp. products partner, to deploy a cloud-based identity management system that provided flexible account provisioning and access management functionality -- transitioning some 70,000 accounts over a six-month period.

Using the cloud-hosted model, ERAU deployed the 11g version of Oracle Identity Manager, Oracle Access Manager, Oracle Virtual Directory, Oracle Internet Directory and Oracle Identity Federation (all part of the OFM offering). The combination of Oracle products provided a highly available identity system that enables students to securely access the university systems, improve self-service offerings and provide control over access to business data to the business owners.

"It [the Oracle system] really helped us do something that would have been almost impossible, otherwise," Bixler said.

Oracle Fusion Middleware in perspective

Oracle is basically selling an integrated one-stop-shop solution as opposed to an a la carte, best-of-breed approach, according to Mark Driver, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. In his view, Oracle (like its biggest competitors, IBM, SAP and Microsoft) is aiming to serve companies that want as much technology as possible from a single source, with a single point of support, and deeply integrated.

Oracle based its OFM product on Java standards, "then they extended it with proprietary extensions to either augment the Java standard or to fill in the gaps and replace the weak parts," Driver noted."Megavendors," including Oracle, he said, tend to be more attractive to conservative users, "whereas 'Type A' adopters will go to best-of-breed products," he said.

Best of breed is an option that isn't perceived as affordable to most mainstream, or at least most conservative IT operations, Driver said. Thus, even though OFM isn't a perfect solution, it is much easier than the alternatives, Bixler discovered.

The biggest remaining issue is that the pieces of the stack are not all the best, according to Driver. "Two or three are market-leading; three or four are pretty good, and one or two are substandard," he said.

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The implication is that companies looking at OFM need to see whether the OFM components match their needs. However, Driver noted, while one may not be able to rely just on OFM, you may be able to reduce a 10-vendor best-of-breed stack to just OFM and a couple of Oracle partners.

The other important issue with selecting OFM (or any other big vendor suite) is that you are making a huge commitment to that vendor, which can be difficult to change in the future, according to Driver. "You tend to become an IBM or an Oracle shop, and that can last for decades," he said. Furthermore, changing vendors is very expensive. "Selecting one is a decision that is not made lightly," he added.

OFM is still a work in progress, Driver pointed out, as Oracle is still integrating a lot of different acquisitions into OFM.

For large companies that are already Oracle-centric, though, they may have the resources to take a best-of-breed approach, it's an easy and natural choice to go to OFM, Driver said. "The more conservative you are and the more you want to avoid risk, the more OFM appeals."

Companies that don't need to have the very best capability in every category, OFM is more than good enough. "For companies like Facebook or Google, doing your own thing makes sense and can provide competitive advantage, but that's not so true for everyone else," Driver said. For most everyone else, OFM solves many problems and minimizes sleepless nights. "It is definitely something companies are looking at," he added.

About the author:
Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.

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