So, What Do You Do, Anyway?
Have you ever been at a socially responsible gathering of fellow humans, perhaps at a family event or school reunion, when someone without a technical background has asked you that question? What do you say? I start off generic, and slowly become more specific until the whites of my audience’s eyes show that I have gone too far.
“I work in IT”, is usually a safe opening gamble; although this can translate to “I do websites” in the minds of my listener. I don’t do websites. They scare me.
“I’m in Integration”, I clarify, bracing for the inevitable follow up.
“Well,” I begin, inviting my audience to a comfortable armchair by the fireplace, “It’s like plumbing, but for computers…”
The digital plumbing analogy is a fallback of mine. I like it, because it does what an analogy should do – it provides a familiar scenario to illustrate a more abstract concept. Just like pipes move water around to where you need it, integration moves data from sources to systems which can do something intelligent with it. But there are hidden depths to the analogy too, more specific areas where integration is like plumbing – and those who practice it are like plumbers.
Made Better by Standards
True story: a little while ago, our showerhead failed. It was old, tired, and needed replacing. So, I popped down to our local hardware store, found a replacement part, and Bob – as the saying goes – became my uncle. This was possible because the showerhead – and the pipe to which it was attached – followed certain standards. Imagine instead, if each plumber used custom-made pipes and connectors of different shapes and sizes. I would have to find the original plumber who had installed the shower, and ask him to whip up something that fit his particular brand of esotericism. This might be great for the plumber as it guarantees him a job for life, but leaves the customer experience severely wanting.
Integration also has standards which let us target the nirvana of true interoperability. There are connectivity standards such as OAS which allow us to normalise our endpoints. There are industry messaging standards like UBL for supply chains, HL7 for health care and ISO20022 for banking and finance. Where possible, good integration must allow for the interchange of connected systems without requiring large changes to the “plumbing” itself.
Apps and Taps
We recently renovated our kitchen, and one luxury we permitted ourselves was a really nice tap (or “faucet” in US “English”). It is sleek, gunmetal grey, pulls out of its stand for targeted cleaning, and can switch from hosepipe to sprinkler mode at the click of a switch. Everyone who sees it remarks on it. But no one looks at the tap and thinks: “That’s a nice tap. I bet it has some really great pipes bringing it water!” As long as the plumbing is doing its job, we often take it for granted.
Similarly, integration should be invisible. Think of a good mobile online banking app. In reality, the app itself is a client to data and services held within the core banking systems, with some well-designed user experience features to allow you to perform a variety of banking related activities from the comfort of your own home. Integration allows the app to function. Yet, few people pay much thought to what is going on “behind the scenes” or how their favourite apps are getting the data they need to be useful.
Smart Endpoints, Dumb Pipes
A common integration principle is that of “smart endpoints, dumb pipes”. What this means is that the integration shouldn’t be doing anything too clever. We should keep business logic in the systems and domains that are responsible for it, with integration solely focused on moving data around or providing and governing access to these systems and services.
Plumbing epitomises this principle. The pipes are there to move the water (or gas, or beer) from one place to another. It is what’s at the end of those pipes that is going to do something useful with it. It could be a fridge which has an icemaker attachment, a calefont providing quick access to boiling water, or a water blaster ready to strip paint off a wall. In any case, the pipes don’t care what the water is being used for, just how to get it there.
So, if integration is like digital plumbing, that must make us digital plumbers! And there are aspects of a plumbers life which can be applied, not only to Integration Workers, but to a lot of professional services industries out there.
When We Get Involved
Think of when you might involve a plumber. For the average homeowner, it’s probably when something has gone wrong and you have water where water should not be. But project managers, builders and architects employee plumbers at all stages of the building or renovation process. For a new build, you wouldn’t (or at least you shouldn’t) be consulting a plumber after the walls are lined and the appliances installed. This is even more important when the plumbing underpins the very purpose of a business, such as a pub or swimming pool. Trying to weave pipes around existing inflexible infrastructure does not a happy plumber make. Rather, they should be directly involved in the planning phase, and continue to be consulted throughout the delivery of the project.
We, too, provide services for any phase of a project. Integration Strategies outline how good integration can support the overall business goals of an organisation. We consult and deliver integration solutions for new systems and renovations to existing ones. We can fix an integration leak when something has gone wrong or is not performing as one might hope. The key is not to leave integration as an afterthought. Get the experts involved early, and you save yourself heartbreak further down the line.
So, that’s what we do. Now, who needs another drink?