Systems integration is sort of like a wedding, where two disparate families are brought together for the first time. Everything could go great — or it could devolve into madness. Who’s to say?
System integrations — the process of connecting different information systems into a larger layer — can be full of surprises, good and bad. Linking different IT systems together is a process of discovering the unknown.
Legacy systems, third-party software, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems running on different servers on-premise, in the public or private cloud — it’s a complicated process that takes time and knowledge to sort through.
Successfully integrating unconnected systems isn’t easy. One survey found 89 percent of organizations had a system integration backlog. However, business logic dictates that in order to truly leverage the digital transformation, building a holistic IT environment in which all systems work well with each other is a must.
Types of Systems Integration
Every systems integration is its own unique process. IT environments differ from organization to organization and no two are alike.
Some are fairly straight forward and some are highly complex B2B integrations with governance and privacy concerns, like in healthcare. System integrations can generally be classified under three types.
Enterprise Application Integration (EAI).
An EAI connects databases and workflows connected to applications to ensure that data is shared throughout the IT environment. This helps maintain system integrity. When one system is altered, it’s reflected in all other systems.
Electronic Data Integration/Interchange (EDI).
In an electronic data interchange (EDI), business documents are shared computer-to-computer in a standard format. This replaces paper documents and automates the process. This often occurs with things like billing or logistics, where the manual process of creating these documents is replaced with a system-managed approach.
Data Integration (DI).
This brings together all system data into a single, unified view. From this view, analytics can be measured to produce actionable intelligence. Though the methods for a data integration vary from project to project, it generally involves bringing data sources under one roof, residing on a single server.
System Integration Methods
Determining the correct way to integrate systems is a difficult task by itself. IT architects must understand each system, their location and how they interact with each other. Getting clarity on how the wider framework functions is vital to a successful integration.
A point-to-point integration is actually fairly limited and involves one system directly integrating with another. These are used for limited integrations with a very specific need. Beyond that specific need, however, they become unwieldy for integrations with multiple data sources.
Vertical integrations are done using a siloed model. Point-to-point connections are based on the function they serve. For example, finance systems would be connected to each other, but not necessarily to supply chain applications. There’s simplicity in this approach, but it’s fairly limited and is not scalable.
The star approach, sometimes called a spaghetti integration, leverages the point-to-point model, but includes multiple touchpoints to create a larger collection of connections that looks like, well, a star.
If not properly managed, star integrations can mean skyrocketing costs and significant complexity. They’re useful for specific use cases, but struggle the larger the environment gets.
A horizontal integration uses a single interface layer that all other subsystems feed into, commonly called an enterprise service bus (ESB). Systems do not directly connect to each other, but the shared resource enables them to share data. This approach is becoming increasingly common for large enterprise organizations.
Common data format integration.
This approach transforms the data of systems to create a single shared format. Data translation becomes seamless and removes the complexity of using multiple systems that may not work well together.
How to Connect Systems
There are multiple methods for connecting systems to one another, although these are the most commonly used for system integrations.
This is the easiest way to connect systems as it provides a direct line between the two applications. APIs are the most commonly-used approach and provide data transmission using a standard format.
This is a “hidden” layer of software that brings systems and applications under a single tent. It provides common services and capabilities to applications beyond what the operating system offers.
Webhooks are sometimes called HTTP callbacks. They’re real-time messages sent between systems when prompted by a specific event.
As discussed above, EDIs replace paper documents with a standardized electronic format. These are typically done through a value-added network through a third-party network or directly through the Internet.
Advantages to System Integration
A successful system integration can impact the bottom line and the core business. A well-run IT environment makes an organization more efficient and reduces costs.
By bringing all systems under one roof, you’re embracing the digital transformation and enabling your organization to embrace all that includes, like automation.
Having an ecosystem where applications are haphazardly connected means unnecessary complexity.
Manually managing a complex IT environment takes time and money. By creating a fully integrated approach, you’re able to reduce the resources and operational costs needed to keep systems running.
By integrating all systems, they’re able to take advantage of shared resources, such as storage or cloud computing, in one business process. Left alone, they consume more resources and require additional maintenance.
More accurate data.
By sharing data across systems, you get a more refined view of processes and workflows. Deeper metrics means deeper understanding of the organization’s performance, which means better decision making.
Challenges to Systems Integration
Though the benefits outweigh the alternative, there are some drawbacks to undertaking a full system integration.
The integration landscape is constantly changing.
Technology moves fast — really fast. Keeping up with the ever-changing landscape can feel like a full-time job by itself. Keeping platforms patched and up-to-date and ensuring that you’re using the best tools needs to be done, but it also consumes resources.
It can be costly.
The initial integration is unlikely to be cheap. The hours and computing resources to stand up the first system integration will cost money — possibly a lot of it. It will pay off in the long run, but admins should be aware of the initial investment required.
Makes for a complex system.
Fully integrated systems that connect to other platforms and applications naturally create an added layer of complexity. Keeping everything working as it should will be a challenge.
Potential security problems.
Connecting systems to one another means that a security flaw in one could impact all. There are additional entry points that bad actors could exploit and the potential impact of a successful break in is magnified in an integrated environment.
Steps in Systems Integration Implementation
The process of actually integrating systems can be a long and complicated one. This order of operations will guide system admins through the implementation process.
Step one is to establish what you want your future system to do. What do you need it to accomplish? What will be included in it? Every system integration is unique. It’s important that the integration team understands exactly what needs to be done.
This is the level setting. System admins must understand what they’re working with.and the work that will need to be done. Is what the organization needs possible with the current set up? What needs remain?
After a careful analysis, it’s time to lay the foundation of the integration. Risks must be identified and accounted for and a formal strategy developed so that all systems are integrated and function as a single component.
Blueprints are typically created in this step to visualize how systems will fit in relation to each other.
Create a management plan.
This determines who will be responsible for what. How will resources be both sourced and distributed? Who will be responsible for testing and quality assurance? Roles and responsibilities must be formalized at this step.
System integration design.
This is the start of the execution phase and is likely the most time- and resource-intensive part of the process. Here, designers determine how each system and software solution will connect with the wider integration.
At last, the actual integration happens. Engineers test systems to ensure that all bugs are fixed and the larger system is operating as intended. This may happen all at once or it may happen in phases.
An integration lifecycle is never fully completed. Once launched, the systems integration must be regularly monitored and updated as necessary. New systems may be added or new tools included.
How to Increase Ecommerce Sales
Explore our collection of free resources designed to help you scale smarter and accelerate your online growth from $1 million to $100 million.
The Final Word
Done properly, an integrated approach to IT infrastructure can mean a much more efficient operation that breaks down silos and enables the organization to work as one. These integration projects are not easy and take time to complete.
However, the return on investment more than makes up for the short-term pain.