Integrating Computer Systems

Even in the time when the Internet was not as prevalent as it is today, it was usually a good idea to build a computer system that was able to communicate with the other systems that were around it.

For example, it’s always been a pain having to go through bank statements matching them up against entries in Microsoft Money or Intuit Quicken. Imagine a world where supermarket mainframes couldn’t automatically order new cans of Coke in time to replenish inventory before anyone bought the last one on the shelves.

Integrating computer systems together has always been a tricky, non-trivial task, usually fraught with problems, and always involving great expense. Until recently Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) was the technology used by businesses that wanted their computer systems to work together. However, because EDI is so complex and the consultants that implement it are very highly trained (and hence expensive), it’s so expensive to implement that only a tiny number of organizations can afford to realize EDI strategies.

Up to this point, we’ve successfully managed to create an e-commerce system that pretty much sits on an island all by itself without involvement with any other systems with which you may want to connect. You may well have suppliers e-mail their latest price and availability list each night, and you want your database to be dynamically updated to reflect any changes made in this list.

On the other hand, perhaps you have an existing accounting system, and you want to pull orders from the Web site and enter them directly into that accounting system. How do you make all of the systems you use work together nicely, and how do you meet the looming e-business challenge of integrating your own systems with those of your partners?

The bad news is that there is no quick fix. There’s no off-the-shelf solution for connecting your system with other systems that are out there (although some vendors offer toolkits that can make it easier to perform integration), so each time you do this you need to pull out your wrench, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get dirty. Each individual system is different and requires custom development time.

This will change, in time, as people start to develop suites of tools for connecting businesses together effectively exposing sockets into an organization and inviting trusted partners to use those sockets as connection points through which to exchange information. As this happens, the sheer weight of interest from the Internet community, coupled with the inherent flexibility of the Internet, will mean that the cost of these tools will get driven right down.

This will make it easy to deal with suppliers, customers, and other partners simply by asking if they support a certain commonly defined “socket”. It’s likely that the people who own the intellectual property behind this stuff will make so much money that Yahoo, Amazon, Excite and the rest of them will look like paupers.

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