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What to Know When Planning System Integration

There’s a lot to think about when planning system integration.

To anyone in the IT sector, the worth of a centralized network is considered invaluable.

And the demand for a truly complete integration solution is clear and, well, tremendously valuable.

According to a recent study by California-based market research and consulting company Grand View Research, the global system integration (SI) market is expected to hit nearly $530 billion by 2025. To put that in perspective, the SI market was valued at $234 billion in 2015. That signifies a boom, with the market set to more than double in just a 10-year span.

That projection isn’t all that shocking. After all, IT infrastructures in just about every industry (banking, financial institutions, logistics, military, telecommunications, and healthcare, retail, energy, and government institutions) have become a disjointed ecosystem comprised of varying and constantly evolving protocols, formats, legacy infrastructure and modern technologies (cloud, on-premise, SaaS, and mobile applications and services), and data use patterns.

Implementing a modernized, single-platform B2B infrastructure provides multiple benefits and moves businesses into a future-ready state. Ultimately, what systems integration software / systems integration solutions look to solve is each and every unique IT problem with customized and seamless ways to connect modern environments with legacy infrastructure.

What is System Integration?

In short, system integration is like putting a puzzle together. There are scattered pieces of an organization’s information subsystems that need to fit together into one well-coordinated, cohesive architecture or integrated application mesh. It’s a complex building process that connects an organization’s functions from varying systems, streamlining disparate systems, including existing hardware, software (customized or out-of-box), and communications.

The end-game with system integration is an organization improving working relationships with customers and partners while increasing work-flow efficiency and lowering operational costs for the business. A system integrator can do this through business process management, computer networking, enterprise application integration, and/or manual programming.

Types of System Integration Methods

Nailing down suitable integrated solutions isn’t exactly simple. But selecting the right parts to deploy and the precise location to deploy them depends on how well a company as well as its partners and vendors understand the necessary processes, security needs, resources, and business objectives. In turn, proper alignment with the business delivers better value from integrating scattered systems, applications, services, and software.

However, solutions are more than just vertical and horizontal integration. Here are four key methods of system integration:

1. Vertical integration

What is vertical integration? The vertical integration definition under the construct of system integration is a process of connecting unrelated subsystems as one functional unit with each subsystem benefiting from another. This vertically integrated concept is also known as creating “silos,” wherein each layer or element works upward. The simplest and fastest method only comprises a handful of vendors, partners, and developers to begin with, but over time, then expands as the process evolves and attempts include newer functions to meet further business requirements.

Let’s briefly consider a vertical integration example in radiology. A Radiology Information System (RIS) tracks results and orders as a Picture Archive and Communication System (PACS) preserves the image. This is where the term “silo” comes into play since the system is tightly integrated to serve a specific and narrowly defined radiology business function, holding the data in one place without coordinating with other siloes.

Some advantages to vertically integrated solutions are:

  • Efficient supply chain coordination
  • Streamlined vendor communication
  • Enhanced competitiveness
  • Greater control of processes
  • Lower operating costs

2. Horizontal integration

What is horizontal integration (aka enterprise service bus (ESB))? The horizontal integration definition under the construct of system integration is more than a one-off process. A specialized subsystem is assigned to communicate between other subsystems. This integrated method also involves the creation of an application layer to allow programmatic connections between various applications and to the ESB. In turn, it becomes a systemic system integration.

Some horizontal integration examples can be found throughout the healthcare sector, helping to simplify integrated medical systems. Through customized development, ESB integration interfaces can effectively work with customer systems generating data or requiring data movement and integration. There is usually seamless communication to provide business rules and policies for HIPAA standard compliance. The ERP functionality can be extended by also implementing EDI, managed file transfer (MFT), and application connectors to transfer, transform, and integrate data originating across numerous systems.

Some advantages to horizontally integrated solutions are:

  • Higher operational efficiency
  • Scalability for dynamic workloads
  • Incremental or phased approach to SI
  • High Availability for business continuity
  • Expand to include additional technology
  • Versatile communication capabilities

3. Star integration

What is star integration (aka spaghetti integration)? The definition of star integration is basically in the name. Star integration relies on the point-to-point method of integrating system components. When this system integration method interconnects each system to the remaining subsystems, the series of connections can look like star polyhedron. Although, the presentation of the diagram as a whole can look messy and interwoven like a plate of spaghetti. In other words, the whole neat and tidy IT infrastructure becomes quickly disorganized if a company approach SI through point-to-point integration.

An example of star integration is if a company segments its processes. A separate accounting system would track finances; a web analytics system manages website traffic; and a customer resource management (CRM) system would integrate Salesforce. Data from each system could be pulled and combined as needed.

Thus, star integration is simultaneously the simplest and most complex version of SI. Currently, star integration is often employed outside of a comprehensive technology strategy. For instance, point-to-point integration may be used to meet the data analytics needs of a specific business unit in sales or marketing while going unchecked by IT.

While the integrated star system cost is unpredictable, as integration fees and deployment time can skyrocket when subsystems export heterogeneous or proprietary interfaces, there are somelimited advantages to this integration method, including:

  • Quick application feature implementation
  • Deployment flexibility
  • Simplicity (granted there isn’t much IT scale)

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Common data format

What is common data format? To effectively ensure reliable and accurate integration, most financial, accounting, customer management, and storage applications require specific and often singular data formats. A high-performance integration solution establishes a common format to remove the reliance for an adapter to translate between various application formats. An enterprise application integration (EAI) system providing an application-independent data format and data transformation service, helping to alter between a common format and an application-specific format.

An example of common data format is converting zip codes to city names by merging or dividing objects from one app or database to another.

Some advantages to common data format integration are:

  • Seamless data translation
  • Automation

Key Questions to Ask When Integrating Systems

Asking the right questions before even choosing an integration vendor or starting an implementation project is the most important part of the process. Here are a few questions to keep in mind:

1. What is the correct integration strategy for a company?

  • Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole. An IT department must justify an integration recommendation to benefit vital B2B technology. Avoid forcing something to extract functions and capabilities that are missing. Make sure a modernized IT infrastructure is ready for a system integration method that includes data, application, business-to-business (B2B), and legacy infrastructure. Planning appropriately with the right vendor offers multiple benefits.

2. What integration interface options are offered?

  • There several connector choices (B2B/EDI, RESTful, SOAP, Web Services, custom development, etc.), and these options impact implementation, infrastructure, and design. Think about the pros and cons with things like vertical integration vs. horizontal integration. Make sure the vendor explains if the interface solution will be complex or simplified.

3. How will this integration process effect current systems?

  • An integration vendor should have full real-time visibility into an IT infrastructure from the very beginning and before a project is even started. As explained earlier, disjointed ecosystem comprised of varying and constantly evolving protocols, formats, technologies, and data use patterns can often cause a domino effect.

4. How will this integration project effect future processes?

  • Implementing a new project likely won’t be a one-off venture. Take into account the scalability of business and IT ecosystems as well as what system integration offers the best flexibility, versatility, and upgrade options going forward.

No doubt, there are a ton moving parts when it comes to centralizing an organization’s physical and digital IT infrastructure. The very thought of taking on a project to solve integration and data movement challenges can seem overwhelming and complex.

But the fact is, with the direction digital transformation is headed, not aligning and modernizing cloud, API, and B2B technologies will ultimately just add complexity on top of convolution. Luckily, approaching system integration with the right strategy can simplify it all.

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