Discussion: Where to start with ERP integration?

We have a large ASP.NET webforms application that manages skill and abilities for staff.  This is a standalone application built upon SQL Server 2012.
Recently prospective clients have asked if our software can 'integrate with Oracle/SAP/etc?'

Although we have strong ASP.NET skills, we have zero knowledge of ERP software and how integration even works.  Therefore, I'd appreciate any guidance on the following questions...

1

We assume integration takes place via web methods or web services (or the new WCF)?

2

Are there any starting points on what type of integration is possible?

3

Do companies such as Oracle/SAP provide documentation on methods of accessing and working with data in their systems, e.g. what methods are available and how the data is formatted (XML etc)?

4

I see off-the-shelf software for sale that all state they 'integrate' with these systems.  Aren't SAP deployments customised, and therefore are all slightly different?  How can something integrate off-the-shelf?

5

How do companies like ours test integration without having a product licence?  We contacted Oracle who basically said we'd have to buy a license at around $30k, which is never going to happen.  So how do small companies afford to even start with integration?
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RouchieAsked:
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PortletPaulConnect With a Mentor Commented:
you may need to start by narrowing down the possibilities for us
What does your application do? (e.g. would it integrate to financials? projects? supply chain?)

i.e. ERP systems are big and have many modules, it may help both you and us, if we can identify the likely integration points.

also, are you likely to provide data to an ERP system or use data from an ERP (or both)
e.g. do you need staff identity information (from a HR system)

1. Most ERP vendors I know of offer SOA/web service interfaces - and a raft of other possibilities (like xml or csv files)
2. doco, see 3
3. yes, online in some cases but not all
4. only too true, often off-the-shelf integrations are configurable, or they are market-ware
5. great question, don't really know. My only thought here is something like "Lisa" which is a 'service virtualization' product (bought by CA some time back) that is used to test system integrations "of-line" by simulating the other end-points. Don't know if this would assist.
http://www.ca.com/us/products/detail/CA-LISA.aspx

existing 'integrators' and/or cloud services offering this may be an avenue for you
(Pervasive is the only name that springs to mind here, but there are others)
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Mark GeerlingsConnect With a Mentor Database AdministratorCommented:
Remember that companies like Oracle and SAP are much more interested in getting people to buy their products and put data into Oracle or SAP systems than in helping third-party organizations get data out of Oracle or SAP.  Most of the APIs, interfaces, web services and documentation that Oracle and SAP provide involve getting data into one of those systems.  

You won't find much to help you extract data out of them.
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
What does your application do? (e.g. would it integrate to financials? projects? supply chain?)

Sorry I'd added a tag HR.  That's really the speciality, it will be user data (employee personal details in/out mainly to synchronise across both systems, plus whatever else there is that we don't yet know about).


You won't find much to help you extract data out of them.

So how have so many smaller companies managed this?  This is the bit I really can't figure out!
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
3. yes, online in some cases but not all

Is this available to paying customers only, or is it publicly accessible?
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PortletPaulConnect With a Mentor Commented:
apologies I didn't notice the tags - thanks for pointing that out.

3. in my experience the documentation is often only available to customers - or partners with partners gaining documentation and facilities that suit the role in addition to those relevant to clients.

Given your application works in the HR realm you will bump into security concerns about sharing (any) HR data - these aren't technical constraints but when I've needed to attempt this in enterprises using SAP or Peoplesoft it's a bit like getting blood out of a stone. But with persistence and accepting that only a very small portion of this data is available it is certainly possible. So, if thinking about investing in such an interface try to avoid needing much beyond a unique identifer and name.

have you considered books? e.g. (at random, I've not read them)
example-SAP example-Peoplesoft
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
The problem about getting blood out of a stone shouldn't be such an issue, as it's the client that specifically asking for this to be possible.  We would obviously have to state exactly what was being transferred in advance for peace of mind.

when I've needed to attempt this in enterprises using SAP or Peoplesoft
So what type of stuff have you had to do?  More importantly, was the documentation/technical data made available to you because you were a customer already?

have you considered books? e.g. (at random, I've not read them)
This might be something we end up using, however, it was my last resort given that the subject is so vast.  Looking for a place to start is the first goal, even if that means paying somebody with experience!
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PortletPaulConnect With a Mentor Commented:
paying for someone with experience may be a great thing to do.

my experience with blood-from-stone isn't directly relevant (it was to do with sharing of people identities in a project management context) - and the technicalities were dealt with by enterprise staff - not by direct contact with the vendors of the ERP (plus to be honest, I design, others code :). I raised this point just to underline the security aspect of an intended interface involving HR data (and that clients get very sensitive here).

By the way, you probably should consider "what your marketplace is" and "what ERPs are relevant for that market" - this may sound trite - but if for instance you are most likely to sell in the small/medium arena then aiming at SAP may be ineffective. Given that you are also .asp may make you more likely to win in Microsoft oriented solutions.

Maybe look around for possible cloud services (i.e. renting an ERP perhaps?) or maybe looking at open source ERP as a way to explore the possibilities.
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
Okay thanks that makes sense.

By the way, you probably should consider "what your marketplace is" and "what ERPs are relevant for that market" - this may sound trite
Not trite at all.  Our main client base is currently SME (circa 100-500 employees), but some of our larger clients (7000 employees) are also taking an interest.  All the larger clients currently have Oracle/SAP but do not like that particular part of their system, so are looking for a replacement that 'hooks in'.  Also, smaller clients (500 employees) are now beginning to purchase Oracle HR and then make demands on us for integration.  So, if we don't act on this we are losing out both ways...!

Maybe look around for possible cloud services (i.e. renting an ERP perhaps?) or maybe looking at open source ERP as a way to explore the possibilities.
I read somewhere (although it was an old article) that SAP offer a cloud testing solution by which calls can be made to/from it to validate the transfer is successful.  Have you ever heard of this?
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PortletPaulConnect With a Mentor Commented:
no - but afraid I'm not too familiar with what SAP offer (or the cloud ERP market in general)

sounds as if you will need to respond to market demand - not sure if I've added much

{small edit 'ERP market' is what I meant}
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
Okay great thanks.  

I'll leave the question open a few days just in case any ERP maestros stumble upon it...(!)
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PortletPaulCommented:
Rouchie, Hi. Have you been able to make any progress in your ERP integration?
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RouchieAuthor Commented:
Sorry for the delay, I've been out of the country for the last couple of weeks.
Progress has been very slow, but in the right direction.

It emerges Oracle will give you access to their software for a low(ish) fee providing that they see some potential in what you're trying to achieve.

From there we require connection strings to each system that a customer requires our ASP.NET application to connect to.  From then, it's down to ASP.NET to interrogate the systems.  I still need to check whether ASP.NET can interrogate using built-in functionality such as LINQ, but that's today's task.

I was told yesterday by a consultant that most large organisations will have a data warehouse where data their data gets exported to periodically.  ASP.NET should therefore interrogate the data warehouse and not the underlying source (e.g. Oracle) directly.  This removes a lot of the security barriers that should exist to prevent access to internal systems from the internet.

I'm grateful for all the input received and will close the question now accordingly.  Thanks for your help.
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PortletPaulCommented:
Sounds good.

& good fortune. Cheers, Paul
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