What are You Integrating?
The word integration gets thrown around quite a bit in an IT shop. In today's world, that term has begun to be used heavily by the business community as well. As everyone knows, when the business and IT groups start using the same word, they rarely tend to mean the same thing. A few years ago when the world of IT was a totally integrated entity, there was little if any need for "integration." We want to be clear that when we use the term integration, what we are speaking about is the combining of information from multiple sources. In the complex world of the 21st century business, that integration will in all probability encompass the largest possible range.
The reasons for the growth of the need for integration can be traced to one central theme: As the business world grows ever more near real time, so grows the need for the most up- to-the-minute information from the corporate systems. The issue becomes how the IT shop keeps up with the ever-increasing demands of the business community. For a period of time this void seems to have been filled by a group of IT-savvy business analysts who became extremely proficient at extracting information from the quagmire of the corporate IT world who through the use of Excel and Access gained relief from IT's inability to provide the data in formats and quantities needed to fuel the business analysis. This solution seemed to have been only a temporary patch, as business moved into the realm of the "e" world, forcing everyone to seek better methods to do near real-time analysis. As the business world entered the age of 24x7 global operations, the windows of processing grew much shorter, and the business world looked for newer, more automated answers.
Enter the business intelligence and business performance management world and the business community has been slowly swayed and convinced by vendors that these new powerful near speed-of-thought tools would trumpet the salvation everyone was seeking. In truth, all that has happened is that these new applications have created more complex and difficult data needs that IT must satisfy. The advent of all of the integration tools in the marketplace is but an attempt by vendors to quickly fill the void and capitalize on the corporate needs for information. Where all of these tools - ETL, EII and EAI - started out having very distinct purposes and areas of strength, the ever-increasing demand for one tool that does it all has forced the vendors to totally cloud the delineations of the tools. It is not at all uncommon that today's EAI tool has the ability to perform some ETL functionality, and the ETL tool can do some of the EAI functionality.
What the IT community has been left with is an interesting scenario. They are tasked with selecting that one be-all, do-all tool for the organization. This is no easy task, given that the range of corporate needs now spans the entire spectrum. The best way to approach this situation is to first understand the issues. Too often, IT in its desire to be helpful and avoid the label of being "unresponsive," jumps too quickly before understanding what it is that the business community really wants and needs. In addition, there always seems to be the proverbial disconnect between business and IT further blurring what is really necessary. Selection of an integration tool means that the organization must also have an integration strategy. Integration of information is usually not a one-time event. It will in all probability be an ongoing and ever-increasing effort so whatever tool the organization selects must not only deal with what it is doing today; but, must be robust to handle what IT doesn't know is going to come in as a result of that next merger or acquisition that hasn't been announced.
Because of our association in the BI/BPM and data warehousing space, we have had the opportunity to see firsthand the needs of organization in respect to integration. We have also had the opportunity to review many of the predominant theories on managing the corporate information infrastructure. If you will take time to review Bill Inmon's work, both the Corporate Information Factory and the Government Information Factory make significant allowances for the need to dedicate a strategic place of the corporate infrastructure to integration. Whether you consider the need to bring together all of the corporate data into a centralized location or even if it's just to exchange data between pieces of the organization, the corporate IT group must be cognizant of the need for both an integration strategy and a very well-defined process for definition, creation and maintenance of its integration needs. To buy or put anything in place without having this vital piece of the IT infrastructure defined and mapped out will result in problems if not in the immediate timeframe, in the future as unanticipated features force current tools to become obsolete.
The reality of selecting a tool forces IT to have a strategy, and the only way to effectively have a workable strategy is to quantify and understand the issues, the goals and objectives and what the business needs are. Whether you select an ETL, an EII or an EAI solution is really irrelevant. The key is that whatever methodology and tool you select must fit the business needs and objectives of your organization. IT must be able to put the tool in the hands of whoever needs it and must be able to administer and use the tool today, tomorrow and next year.
In today's world, the only reality is that doing in-house coding is probably the only thing that IT doesn't want to consider. The tools that are in the marketplace are much easier to maintain, and the level of expertise required is tantamount to reducing the cost of maintenance for any integration strategy. Other than that one caveat, really the entire spectrum of products, strategies and functionality is wide open. As long as IT follows a logical methodology, selects tools that will integrate into its infrastructure and truly selects a toolset that satisfies the short and long-term needs of the organization, the toolset will serve the organization well. But then, that is always the key part of anything that IT selects for the organization.
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Greg Mancuso and Al Moreno are principals with Sinecon, a business intelligence consultancy specializing in data integration and BI/DW solution architecture design. Together they have more than 29 years of data warehouse and business intelligence experience and have implemented many large-scale solutions in both the U.S. and European markets. They may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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