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Strategies for IT integration

Dr Wing Lam takes a look at the IT integration options available to enterprises


Dr Wing Lam

Over the years, many large organisations have built up a diverse portfolio of IT systems that include packaged applications (such as SAP R/3, Siebel and Peoplesoft), legacy systems (often based on older mainframe technology), and customised systems and database management systems (such as Oracle and MS SQL Server). With rapid technology innovation, such IT portfolios often end up becoming a melting-pot of different technologies, platforms and architectures.

New initiatives such as e-business, customer relationship management (CRM) and supply-chain management (to name a few) all share an important characteristic—they rely on the integration of IT systems. In the case of e-business, for example, Web sites must be integrated with back-end IT systems, and in the case of CRM, customer information must be integrated with a variety of other IT systems. Notably, the integration of IT systems is just as relevant to public sector organisations as it is to commercial ones—the realisation of e-governance, for example, requires integration of IT systems used by the government.

Unfortunately, the melting-pot IT portfolio does not easily lend itself to the integration of IT systems. The two common barriers are technology incompatibility and the fact that certain IT systems (particularly older ones) were not originally designed to be integrated with, in the first place. CIOs and CTOs are therefore faced with a new challenge of developing a strategy for IT integration within the organisation. Importantly, a strategy for IT integration must be long-term and be able to ride over the inevitable changes in the technology landscape.

Four Routes To Take

Research suggests that there are four main strategies for IT integration—consolidation, homogenisation, communication and orchestration.

Consolidation involves merging of IT systems similar to the way organisations merge to leverage on greater levels of efficiency. Where an IT portfolio has IT systems which overlap in functionality or provide closely-coupled functionality, consolidation provides a means of removing redundancy. The result? Leaner IT and lesser need to maintain different IT systems.

Homogenisation involves replacing IT systems with an integrated suite of IT solutions typically provided by a single vendor. ERP solutions are a prime example of a homogenisation strategy, where an organisation can purchase a core ERP solution and then select the modules (e.g. distribution, personnel, marketing, sales) it requires to run its business. One drawback with this strategy is that an organisation needs to change its business processes to fit the IT solution rather than the other way around.

Communication involves ensuring that individual IT systems are able to inter-operate with other IT systems. This means that IT systems are built in such a way that they expose their functionality through platform-independent, open standards such as Web Services or Enterprise Java Beans. While this can be achieved with newer IT systems, older legacy IT systems are more problematic and may need to be substantially re-engineered.

Orchestration involves the use of an orchestration engine to manage the interaction between individual IT systems. The individual IT systems are hooked up to the orchestration engine which then serves as a broker for transferring messages between the IT systems. Such an approach is supported by the orchestration tools provided by vendors such as TIBCO, SeeBeyond and WebMethods.

Making The Right Decision

The choice over which IT integration strategy to use depends on several factors, including the size and diversity of the organisation’s IT portfolio, its current and future integration needs, the fluidity of its business processes, and the level of IT maturity within the organisation. Most important for CIOs and CTOs however is that they are able to align the IT integration strategy with the organisation’s business strategy, and this in turn should ensure that they receive a high level of top-level management support.

The author is Director, MISM Programme, and Associate Professor, Universitas 21 Global

 
     
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