by Christopher Koch

IT Integration’s New Strategy

Sep 15, 200517 mins
Data Center

For years, whenever Wisconsin state CIO Matt Miszewski tried to discuss systems integration with agency heads, he sensed a fog settling over the room. “You could see it in their eyes,” he says. “They tuned out.”

Worse, when the fog cleared, it was replaced with anger. Difficulty with integration, Miszewski could tell they were thinking, was just another IT excuse for slowness, inflexibility and inability to give them what they wanted.

And Miszewski couldn’t blame them. Technical limitations and time pressures often made integration a haphazard affair. Rushing to meet deadlines, developers cobbled together direct links (point-to-point integration) to share data and business logic among applications.

While that kind of integration is quick and relatively simple, over time it has crippled the health and flexibility of most IT architectures by creating a cobweb of hundreds, even thousands, of brittle linkages that have to be torn apart and reassembled every time one of the applications changes.

All those links, built up over decades, have created a crisis that goes far beyond IT. The rise of the Internet has made businesses completely dependent on IT to add new capabilities. The foundations of those new capabilities often lie buried inside old systems that were never designed to communicate with one another, let alone over a global network. Adapting those systems to communicate—that is, systems integration—can take so long that entire generations of business opportunities (new products, alliances, mergers and acquisitions) can grow old while IT fiddles with the wiring. Unable to explain the complexity of their problem, CIOs inevitably wind up on the defensive, with only the most patient, tech-savvy CEOs able to commiserate.

But markets don’t commiserate with anyone. Markets see only one speed: fast. Aesop didn’t spend any time on Wall Street. On the Street, the tortoise almost always loses.

The urgency and intractability of this problem is underlined in CIO’s “State of the CIO” survey: Integration has been the number-one technology concern of CIOs since we began doing the survey in 2002. (CEOs also put it at the top of their list when we began surveying them in 2004.) CEOs’ three primary complaints about IT, according to survey after survey—that it is too expensive, too slow and too inflexible—all lead back to integration.

In short, the business is tired of waiting for IT to catch up with its demands.

And so are CIOs.

How the Integration Layer Can Untangle the Enterprise

All this is hardly news. CIOs have been painfully aware of integration’s costs for years. What they’ve lacked is a unified strategy for dealing with those costs. But recently some old concepts and some new technologies have converged to generate a new, winning strategy that promises to blow away the cobwebs and radically improve IT’s responsiveness (while also reducing integration costs). It is the integration layer, a virtual stratum in the architecture that is composed of two major pieces: messaging and services.

The foundational piece—known as the messaging infrastructure—is like a good executive assistant, translating, routing and monitoring information from different systems without these systems needing to connect directly. Adding, changing or removing a system becomes a matter of modifying a single link, rather than ripping apart connections to all the different systems it may need to communicate with.

But while the messaging infrastructure makes connecting systems easier, it doesn’t free business processes from their mainframe prisons, or eliminate redundancies in applications, or provide any impetus to create a useful architecture. Indeed, a good messaging infrastructure can perpetuate the chaos by making it easier to deal with.

Of course, not every company has redundant systems and processes. For them, messaging may be enough. But for most companies—especially big ones with dozens of different ERP systems all doing more or less the same things—messaging alone won’t create an effective integration layer.

Messaging is an IT solution, not a business solution. It has long lacked a higher purpose, a strategy. Service objects (or just plain “services”) is that strategy, and it is the second core piece of the integration layer. The idea behind services is simple: Technology should be expressed as a unit of business work—like “get credit,” or “find customer record”—rather than as an arcane application such as ERP or CRM. This is an old concept, based on object-oriented programming from the ’80s. Services extract pieces of data and business logic from systems and databases around the company and bundle them together into chunks that are expressed in business terms.

Object Lessons in Services

At telecom company Verizon, the service called “get CSR” (get customer service record) is a complex jumble of software actions and data extractions that uses Verizon’s messaging infrastructure to access more than 25 systems in as many as four data centers across the country. Before building the “get CSR” service, Verizon developers wanting to get at that critical lump of data would have to build links to all 25 systems—adding their own links on top of the web of links already hanging off the popular systems.

But with the “get CSR” service sitting in a central repository on Verizon’s intranet, those developers can now build a single link to the carefully crafted interface that wraps around the service using the Web service standard simple object access protocol (SOAP). Those 25 systems immediately line up and march, sending customer information to the new application and saving developers months, even years, of development time each time the service is used.

Though the productivity savings for IT are huge, the strategic implications for Verizon are just as important. Create enough services and you can start to build a map of the business expressed in technology—a service-oriented architecture (SOA). An SOA is the blueprint that guides the development of the integration layer and its two major components: messaging infrastructure and services. An SOA is the big picture of all the business processes and flows of a company. It means businesspeople can visualize, for the first time, how their businesses are constructed in terms of their technology.

“When I said we have 18 slightly different versions of ’credit check’ buried inside different applications in different agencies,” says Miszewski, “the agency heads could understand why having all those different versions was a problem, and they could support creating a single version that everyone could use.”

Toby Redshaw, Motorola’s corporate vice president for corporate IT strategy, architecture and e-business, had a similar experience when he told his 80-year-old mother about IT’s central catalog of business services. “When I was done explaining it, she said, ’Manufacturing broke its work up into pieces 200 years ago. What’s taken you so long?’”

When your business has an integration layer containing services, “a change in business policy can be made quickly rather than opening up an application project,” explains Randy Heffner, vice president for Forrester Research. Integration becomes strategic, rather than an afterthought. “With business services, you are saying you are designing the business, and the design is too important to leave to ad hoc implementation teams working on a deadline,” Heffner adds.

Not only does integration become strategic, it becomes a lot cheaper (at least 30 percent cheaper, according to estimates by research company Gartner) and faster too, taking months off development cycles for new projects. Anecdotal evidence pegs the financial and productivity gains much higher. At Motorola, Redshaw says that in some cases, integration costs have been reduced by a factor of 10. Shadman Zafar, Verizon’s senior vice president for architecture and e-services, says that his catalog of services let him skip forming a project team for the development of a phone-line ordering process, because the services necessary to compose the process were already in place. “With point-to-point integration we would have had a central project team to write the overall integration, and local teams for each of the systems we needed to integrate with. With [the phone-line process], we had a single team that was focused almost entirely on end-to-end testing.” That saves time and resources and improves the quality of new applications, because testing is no longer the last hurdle of an exhausting application development process; instead, it’s the focus.

If you can do all this, CIOs will be waiting for the business to catch up—not the other way around.

Why Layering Requires Centralized Management

Nothing in IT is ever simple, including the creation of an integration layer. The goal of the strategy is nearly always to minimize redundancy by having as few messaging infrastructures as possible and creating a single repository of services. Therefore, by definition, the integration layer demands centralized IT management.

“Absolutely,” says Rick Sweeney, chief architect for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. “SOA isn’t a technology; it’s a framework, a blueprint, and if you don’t have control over it and aren’t guaranteeing that it’s being applied across the organization, you’ll never have a true SOA. There are probably a million ways to architect an integration layer, but you can’t have a thousand different ways inside your company.”

For example, Verizon, though geographically dispersed, has a centralized business and IT model, so there was no conflict over the composition of the integration layer or the SOA strategy behind it. Indeed, the original impetus for Verizon’s strategy was to eliminate the redundancy of systems that resulted from its mergers and acquisitions of other telecom companies such as GTE and Nynex.

That wasn’t easy. When Zafar’s team began picking over the remains of those systems in 2001, it combed through every button and drop-down menu in every application it could find—roughly 2,900 in all—looking for shards of software functionality that might be incorporated into a service component. From the thousands of function points they found, the team isolated between 200 and 500 functions that are needed for the more than 90,000 business transactions (such as setting up a new landline account) that Verizon performs. Then the team looked across the infrastructures and found five to 25 redundant versions of each function. Zafar says that gave him all the incentive he needed, and all the proof that Verizon CIO Shaygan Kheradpir and other company executives demanded, to approve the integration layer strategy.

The Trouble with Developers

Surprisingly, a services strategy, despite its obvious advantages, may not be all that popular among developers. “Developers want everything to be easy,” says Clint Petty, a director in professional services for software and services vendor CommerceQuest.

Services are not easy—at first. Extra work is required to create an interface, the part that describes what the service does in business and technical terms and how other systems access it. Good interfaces are like good friendships: easy on the surface with no hint of the relationship’s history of ups and downs. “A good service knows who it is, can describe itself to others and show who wants to connect to it,” says Jeff Gleason, director of IT strategies for the financial markets group of Transamerica Life Insurance and Annuity. “The essence of service-style integration is that the interface is intelligent and communicative.”

Developers writing links to a good interface need only write the basic communication code that accesses it—a programming version of a handshake and a hello—and the service does the rest. The developer doesn’t need to know what the service is composed of, what computer language it is in or even how it works—only what it does in business terms.

But developers need incentives to build those interfaces. “Everybody is focused on getting a new application up and running now,” Verizon’s Zafar says. “And their primary focus is not on how they can continue to add value to other systems. If they feel pushed to the wall, they won’t opt for the best possible design—just the best design to get the job done.”

Zafar first created a centralized development methodology and services repository to ensure that services and their interfaces were being developed consistently. He also does architectural reviews at the beginning of a project (to get developers to promise to use existing services and build new ones during the project) and at the end to see if the developers have met their promises. When Zafar began developing a services catalog (known inside Verizon as the “IT Workbench”) in 2001, many did not. “We had to stop some projects,” he recalls. “People learned that they had to reuse the enterprise assets.”

As the catalog has grown, more positive reinforcements have come into play. Though the development methodology is heavily centralized, Zafar says he encourages developers to submit refinements and best practices that, if they are good enough, are incorporated into the overall methodology. On the website where services are stored, Zafar ranks those that get the most reuse and puts the developers’ names beside them. The chances for stardom for individual developers are good, because Verizon also publishes some Web services to external partners. “It’s exactly like the open-source model,” says Zafar. “People take pride in seeing their code being reused by others.”

But before developers outside the company will use services—and before business leaders will sign off on their use—they need some guarantees that the work done by others will not bring down their own applications and businesses. (This could happen, for example, when a service designed to handle 10,000 transactions a day is added to an application that runs 20,000.) Though a centralized development framework may not always be popular with developers, it certifies that all work is done in roughly the same way and to the same standards. To that Zafar adds service-level guarantees, including transaction-handling capacity, transaction speed, hours that the service will be available and an agreed-on price for using it. “Unless you have a framework for development and service and accounting agreements, no one will trust the service on a mission-critical application,” says Zafar. “This is why SOA is still a toy in many companies today.”

Is an Integration Layer Right for You?

Given the potential roadblocks to moving to an SOA, it’s important to evaluate whether it should be a short- or long-term goal. Because a messaging infrastructure is necessary to support grander visions of services and an SOA, most companies begin there. Many may not need to go further.

“SOA is being presented as the latest silver bullet,” says B. Lee Jones, vice president for IT and CIO of Stratex Networks, a wireless telephone equipment manufacturer. “I still need to be convinced that the ubiquitous interface is something I need to have. I don’t look at it as a downside to have some redundancy in my applications, because my systems ain’t broke.” Jones says he has reduced integration costs and increased flexibility by using intelligent middleware and minimizing customizations in the packaged applications he installs. Still, he says, “If I had a problem with integration, the promise of SOA is good. I’m willing to be convinced.”

Larger organizations can find convincing evidence based on the number of integration cobwebs they have hanging off their major systems. “Count up the number of point-to-point connections to a particular system and you can predict what the most popular service will be,” says Wisconsin’s Miszewski. That’s how he chose his first service pilot. A function sitting inside one of the Department of Transportation’s systems that converts addresses into pinpoints on graphical maps looked like an old mirror in the attic, enveloped in dusty point-to-point connections. At first the agency was fearful, concerned about not only the higher transaction loads on the system as it became available as a service but also the loss of ownership of the system itself—typical for organizations new to a services approach. But “once we developed two or three services, they got it,” says Miszewski. “Once you take the fear away, there is only cost savings and productivity improvement in front of them, and adoption becomes much easier.”

Though services can save time and effort even when they are only small pieces in applications that are otherwise traditionally developed, the real long-term strategic payback comes when they become the backbone of an important cross-enterprise business process. At Verizon, the order-placement process—at least the IT part of it—is now composed entirely of services, each representing a particular unit of work in the process. The process begins when the credit verification service qualifies the customer. The address verification service ensures that Verizon can provide telephone service at the customer’s address. Next, the reserve service retrieves and locks a new phone number. The activate line service makes the actual phone line go live. Finally, the start billing service begins the phone usage collection and billing process. (The line test service comes into play if the customer has trouble with the new line.)

However, not every step in Verizon’s ordering process can be transformed into an automated service. Some work still requires people. In the ordering process, those boundaries between automated services and human interventions are often marked by event notifications. For example, if a customer tries to set up a new account but fails because Verizon doesn’t serve that area, Zafar has programmed an event into the system to notify customer service representatives when service becomes available.

The Final Steps: Events and Business Accountability

Think of events as the referees of the business process. For example, events can be programmed to send an e-mail notification to a customer service representative (“that phone number is not available”) or to kick off a service-based unit of work (“find new phone number”). Like services, events are defined in business rather than technology terms.

If services represent what the business does, events define when those things should be done. Most enterprise business processes today have the smarts of a stump, says David Luckham, electrical engineering research professor emeritus at Stanford University and a pioneer in event-based programming. The true value of service-oriented processes will be realized only when those processes can sense and respond to events that matter to the business. This kind of capability could begin to take off by 2007, predicts Gartner analyst Roy Schulte, when standards for what he calls complex event messaging begin to emerge.

But the integration layer won’t truly be all grown up until it becomes a business responsibility rather than an IT responsibility. In theory, as the links between services and events become ever simpler and more descriptive, businesspeople should be able to take over the linking duties themselves by “dragging and dropping” services they see on a screen in order to create new processes or modify old ones. That model has already been introduced by business process management (BPM) software vendors (see “Business Process Management: A New Glue or the Old Soft Shoe?”), but the packages aren’t yet capable of putting an entire SOA in the hands of businesspeople.

When they are, the only remaining barrier to IT-business alignment—the sense among businesspeople that they cannot control their own destinies—will dissolve. It will take time, but the vision is there; and with the rise of Web services standards, CIOs can begin to construct that vision themselves, right now.

“We want to engage the business in a business-process-flow conversation rather than the traditional ’Tell us what you want and we’ll do it’ approach to development,” says Redshaw.

Wisconsin’s Miszewski sees that conversation already getting less awkward and more satisfying for all involved. “This is truly disruptive technology for integration,” he says.

“It’s about time.”

Executive Editor Christopher Koch can be reached at