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Understanding what system integration is

What does system integration mean?

In the world of software solutions, system integration involves connecting various IT systems, services, and more recently ‘things’ to form a dynamic application network, allowing each component or application to function as a part independently to realise the whole. This improves the productivity and quality of the overall operations within an enterprise. 

By integrating software (customised or packaged) and communications, these systems and applications “talk to each other” and facilitate a rapid information flow and lower operational costs. 

In the current age, system integration naturally extends beyond your enterprise boundaries into systems managed by your customers, partners and suppliers that your organisation operates with which further complicates the integration ecosystem and throws in additional challenges of connectivity and security.

To realise integration solutions, different methods have been adopted over the years starting from the simplest forms of basic point-to-point integration to progressively complex models such as vertical, star and horizontal integrations, each promising to address the limitations of the other. The last decade has seen widespread adoption of paradigms such as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and more modern techniques such as Microservices to realise integration solutions.

Not only that, complementary approaches such as service-based integration, event-driven integration and API-integration attempt to address specific technical and business goals of system integration such as timeliness, loose-coupling, freshness, reliability, reusability, composability to name a few. For example, an API acts both as a business and technical contract between two or more applications, thereby allowing the API consumer to enjoy the levels of service dictated by the contract while allowing the API provider to independently evolve the underlying service to offer additional functionality / better service levels without breaking the ‘terms’ of the established contract.

Why is system integration important?

With the accelerating pace of business, organisations must not only be good at what they do, but they must be able to do it quickly.  As a result, businesses must put speed at the core of how a company operates and prioritise the reduction of operational friction in order to enable a truly real-time enterprise.  This is where the role of system integration is more critical than ever to streamline an organisation’s internal operations, as well as enabling businesses to seamlessly communicate with current and potential future customers, suppliers and partners.  

Think of system integration as piecing together a puzzle, but not just any ordinary puzzle. This is a puzzle where the individual pieces have their unique identity and function, yet must be capable of being fitted together in multiple ways to realise unique collective solutions. As a company grows, new pieces (systems, processes, applications, devices) get added and old pieces get replaced or removed constantly, making the entire ‘box’ (overall IT landscape) so heavy and unmanageable that it becomes increasingly difficult to pick and join the right pieces without introducing risk and inefficiencies to the overall business.

With a robust system integration strategy in place, all these scattered pieces of information, trapped within various subsystems and applications can become organised and seamlessly unified and relayed in real-time into a cohesive application mesh or dynamic application network. This means new shiny ‘pieces’ (applications leveraging modern technology paradigms such as cloud, big data, and IoT) can be quickly integrated into existing and new business solutions, enabling organisations to gain value from these new investments more rapidly.

System integration benefits

Well-designed system integration solutions, underpinned by integration platforms with hybrid capabilities, boost workflow efficiency, improves relationships with customers and partners, and lowers operational costs. Establishing a dynamic application network, underpinned by API integration unlocks data silos, reduces manual processing and double-handling which reduces errors and importantly provides real-time data for analysis and faster decision making.  

Integration solutions leveraging a vertical integration method support the efficient coordination of a supply chain and enhanced competitiveness with lower operating costs, whereas adopting a horizontal integration method (underpinned by the usage of an ESB product) provides increased scalability for dynamic workloads, and hence more potential for business expansion. 

Methods such as business-to-business integration optimise the business processes that extend beyond company boundaries to connect customers, partners and suppliers. This provides organisations with a competitive business edge, from an optimised inventory to a better-managed end-to-end supply chain process – and thereby more satisfied customers.

System integration challenges 

The system integration process is by no means simple – the challenges stem from the fact that organisations are dealing with heterogeneous data – data is coming in many different forms from many systems and at varying degrees of speed and quality. This means many aspects need to be considered when trying to build bullet-proof enterprise-class integration solutions to connect all these disparate systems and technologies together:

  • What are all the systems that need to be connected and at what level (e.g. ISA-95) do they sit? - ERP, CRM (Level 4), MES, Inventory, Warehousing (Level 3), SCADA (Level 2), Sensors (Level 1) 
  • Where are these systems geographically located? – Head Office, Branch Office, Operational Sites
  • What communication protocols do they support? – How will the solution handle different communications protocols? (TCP, FTP, MQ, SMTP, HTTP, CICS) 
  • Data Mediation – What transformation, routing, filtering, debatching, aggregation and such is required to connect each system with the other?
  • Data Access – Who needs access to the data, what security needs to be in place?
  • Data Governance – What are the governance requirements?
  • Performance – What are the performance and scalability requirements? Are there peak periods where the load is significantly higher that must be accounted for; busy Christmas period, financial year-end, calendar year deadlines, semester and school term alignment
  • Data Timeliness – What is the timeliness that is required and how does that determine the integration approach - synchronous or asynchronous integration?

As a trusted MuleSoft partner, we help organisations address these challenges every day.  Our MuleSoft integration team can help you on your MuleSoft journey providing integration solutions spanning the entire system lifecycle including Strategy and Architecture, Systems Integration leveraging service-based, event-driven and API Integration, API Management, Platform Services, Legacy Migration or Upgrade and Managed Services.  Our extensive integration domain expertise spans critical enterprise process flows including order-to-cash, order-to-delivery, procure-to-pay, inventory management, warehouse management, member management, rail supply chain tracking, B2B sales and employee self-service procurement.  

Need help getting started on your system integration project?  Make a time to chat.

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