Integrations—For CIOs, CFOs, and other CxOs
Integration—such a techy topic! Is it as simple as “those systems should talk to each other”? Of course not—but the ideas behind it are not as mystifying as they might seem. The concept and operations are as critical to your business as the complexities of internet marketing and social media.
As enterprise-class systems move to the cloud, leaders hear about integration with several areas of focus: as a skillset lacking in their teams, as a technology that requires more tools and middleware systems or as the primary function of IT in the cloud ecosystem (not necessarily always true, but often heard). The move to the cloud requires leaders to understand the integration landscape at a deeper level to ensure they are prepared for the shifts coming—and can separate hype from reality.
In an information economy, think of integrations not only as the arteries and veins of your business but also the heart, keeping information flowing everywhere it needs to be—and when it needs to be there. Most of us don’t think about blood flow in our bodies, but every movement requires it. If your foot is asleep when your dog escapes out the front door, you’ll think about blood flow for a few minutes!
How does data move through and between components of organizations and their partners? From a system-to-system viewpoint, there are some very broad categories: batch and transactional integrations. A batch integration example is when a company sends its entire employee eligibility file to a benefit provider. A batch integration is generally an automated, file-based integration sent daily, weekly, etc.; there’s no real business reason to send it more often, as a new employee can’t use their benefits immediately.
For many years, batch integrations were the vast majority of how systems talked to each other. Integration methods shifted with the advent of real-time integration expections. Web Service integrations started to make standard methods of requesting and receiving data in near-real-time possible. When it began, it was not widely adopted in large business systems but was used to build most of the internet as we see it. Today, it is an expectation that companies on the web can pass data instantaneously.
One of the biggest benefits of this newer approach is a much lower development and operational cost to connect these systems. The protocols are in place to trade small components of data (think credit card information approvals on web sites) very quickly, securely and cheaply. I have found that with teams that are mature in this space, development time can be a third or less for a web service integration compared to a batch or file-based integration. And the operational run cost can be even less.
In fact, as the technology improves, data streaming—the constant movement of small, real-time bursts of data—are starting to impact system operations and real-time analytics in fascinating ways. Think about the seemingly simple task of gathering and recording in real time data from a smartwatch to a fitness app on your phone.
So now for the challenge: How do we take the best advantage of these technologies in enterprise-class systems? Have our cloud vendors done so? Have our other partners done so? Have our internal IT teams prepared themselves? Does this change impact the business directly?
For leaders, ask some questions in your organization about how ready your team and your technology providers are to take advantage of technology that is very well understood, but not always very well implemented.
Here are some questions for you to ask, especially as you prepare to move from on-premises systems to cloud systems, where integration becomes one of your primary responsibilities:
• Have we trained our technical teams on web service integrations? This requires not just training, but the time and space to experiment and find opportunities in an enterprise to capitalize on this technology and find improvements.
• Do we have an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB)? This technology, available from several vendors (commercial and open source), can help to streamline operations and reduce duplication in your integrations.
• Where have we shifted away from file-based integrations? Where have we refactored file-based integration to improve our business processes and reduce our operational costs?
• Have we built any highly-reused integrations? Or is every one custom? In technology design, as in other fields, simplicity is hard work. Reuse requires paying attention, good design principles, and some rigor around your integrations.
If, as senior leaders, we ask questions about these subjects, opportunities arise for some interesting conversations around the impact of a very technical topic on the business strategy of an organization. You may find some untapped talent in your team that is ready to push boundaries!
If you want some great advice about the cloud transformation for your organization, this Amazon Web Services presentation on “How to Manage Organizational Change and Cultural Impact During a Cloud Transformation” has a broad view of getting there.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tambellini Group. To express your views in this forum, please contact Katelyn Ilkani, Vice President, Client Services and Cybersecurity Research, The Tambellini Group.