Thursday, May 04, 2006

Choose an Integration Model

That's right folks, we're back to the technology. I'm working with a team reviewing the integration models available to an ambitious start up. It seems that some sectors are 5 years or more ahead of others, with retail, manufacturing and aviation generally at the front of the pack and healthcare struggling to catch up.

There are huge cultural implications around these decisions, but we are observing a recurrent pattern of maturity emerging.

Back in the days when computing became accessible, businesses applied the technology where they faced the greatest number crunching challenges- usually in their accounting and finance functions. At some point these isolated technologies needed to talk to each other and pairs of integrated systems emerged followed by clusters and groups.

What you had though was a series of point to point system communications where the integration ethos gradually became to marry the systems together as closely as possible. This was how to derisk projects. The concept of system X being marketed as compatible with system Y began. Whole families of technologies became aligned with each other and feuded with the family next door. With this approach there could ultimately only be one winning chain of systems. The essence of Microsoft's dominance in Office IT was born out of this era.

However, businesses began to realise they were locked into technology roadmaps and vendors. The opportunities to differentiate reduced. Huge monolithic systems were integrated beyond the ability to be flexible and post implementation changes became prohibitively expensive. Projects became so large and cumbersome that delivery failure was common and the blame would be between the two vendors who's systems were being integrated. The interfaces were often on the periphery of the systems and the projects so the risk wasn't managed appropriately and responsibility was ambiguous. Business had a choice of being hamstrung by outmoded and uncompetitive processes or picking over the bones of their legacy systems.

Recently though, a new model emerged where the starting point was to presume change. Success would come through collaboration rather than the traditional ideas of integration. Best of breed solutions from many vendors would be orchestrated to work together, but through standards-based, loose couples facilitating message transfer rather than tight marriages.

Some specialists pioneered in the area and made quite a reputation for themselves. Then the might of Microsoft came to the party and after struggling to find it's feet with early versions, managed to gain some traction and the race was on.

Two vendors are able to teach us about this modern approach to messaging integration-MS and Intersystems. This video shows how one of the primary movers in this space, Intersystems, use their Ensemble platform to build a Virtual Electronic Health Record. In another healthcare situation, we see how MS products (with BizTalk at the core) have been applied with dramatic effect in Indiana.

One of the first headlines of the IT Programme in Heathrow's T5 was about their selection of an XML hub. 5 years ago it would have been about the hardware choice.

Where will we go next? Where is your business?

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