Integration tools and middleware technologies play a critical role in delivering effective IT strategies - but they have often been a complex and costly aspect of IT infrastructure. Recently, however, there have been significant developments in the market and as a result important innovations are emerging that allow IT decision-makers to add genuine value to the business and maximise the return on their investment in integration technologies.
At a recent Computer Weekly seminar, in association with Hitachi Consulting and Microsoft, delegates heard from IT leaders who had undertaken successful integration projects and listened to best practice advice from experts.
Shared services yield savings
Integration is at the heart of Compass Point Business Services, an organisation set up as a shared services firm by two Lincolnshire local authorities - a path many councils will have to take following government cutbacks.
Compass Point managing director Stephen Bayliffe said innovation is possible in the public sector through integration, which in his case will enable £30m savings over 10 years by providing back-office services to its local government owners.
"Local politics has sometimes prevented common sense, but a shared services model will deliver £30m in savings, bring commercial orientation to the way councils do business and allow us to grow by offering business process outsourcing to other authorities," he said.
In forming the company, a new platform had to be created, able to incorporate legacy systems.
"We only had six months, but we saw real opportunities to improve customer service and services such as HR and finance," said Bayliffe.
The project commenced last summer and staff were consulted about redesigning business processes to eliminate waste, which had never been done before.
A suite of integration software based on Microsoft Dynamics and Biztalk was integrated with applications such as revenues and benefits, and went live in March.
"We are ambitious and wanted integration software that would allow ease of acquiring and integrating new clients," said Bayliffe.
"Without the platform we would still have two of everything. We now have a single view of the citizen and have reduced re-keying of information, and the experience for clients has improved."
Legacy systems such as planning and building regulations have been easily integrated, leading to clarity of reporting, auditing and governance.
"Residents demand clarity and transparency and authorities have to report every spend over £500. Without the integration platform, this would be a nightmare," said Bayliffe.
Today, Compass Point sends out council tax bills and administers new housing benefits, but developing trust with clients was key to success.
"Political tension between councils exists so we have to persuade potential clients that we have a system which will not threaten them, but will save them money," said Bayliffe.
Ian Storer, solution architect in the office of the CTO at law firm Allen & Overy, had different reasons for integration and had to use different tactics to persuade the business that integration was relevant because it did not provide new features for users.
"Integration was necessary due to the need to upgrade reference data that connects systems around the world and provide stable and reliable information. There were lots of benefits, but nothing a lawyer could see at the end, so we had to link integration to the business strategy, globalisation and competitiveness to drive a solid business case. Integration allows the agility and flexibility for those trends to be achieved," he said.
The firm had grown and had 1,600 best-of-breed applications which were discreet and separate with their own data store.
"It meant duplication of effort and data and there was a problem transferring data between systems and maintaining quality of data. We didn't want a copy of finance data for every business specific application," said Storer.
However, the integration project could not afford to disrupt systems. For example, the time recording system needed upgrading and each office had its own installation.
"It would be a serious issue if there was a break in data transportation or information failed as it would not be possible to bill," said Storer.
An enterprise service bus (ESB) based on Microsoft Biztalk was implemented with a customisation layer to remove complexity, but it was important to solve issues around data to prevent inconsistency.
"The culture is no longer that it is possible to take data and change it, you must go through the integration layer, which makes it easier to support consistency as it is in one place. Guidance and governance concerning going to the central location to get information was key in driving this forward," said Storer.
The platform is globally available and means that information barriers across the firm have been removed.
"Irrespective of country or jurisdiction, it has enabled easier and better quality of integration," said Storer.
The agility delivered means the company can consider moving to cloud-based services.
"Our roadmap is embedded in the platform - for example we can potentially share billing information on an iPad, and consolidation and collaboration are possible," said Storer.
Jennifer Yates, CTO at JLT Employee Benefit Solutions, needed to build an integration platform as quickly as possible to allow the firm's corporate customers to understand their products for online employee benefits.
"We wanted to move from a paper-based model where employees get the odd letter telling them about their pension to an integrated model so they could get more out of their benefits package," said Yates.
The platform had to deliver globally and be engaging. It was delivered within six months and generated revenue within that time and profit in the first two years.
"It's all about data and engagement. The employee has to want to go back to the website to understand benefits; a paternalistic employer wants to run pension awareness, for example, and providers can see take-up of benefits, so they want to engage and work with us," said Yates.
A key feature is dashboards, where employers, employees and providers can analyse information relevant to them. While attractiveness to users is important, performance relies on scalability and reliability.
"Business benefits of the platform are that we own it, it enables our international network to allow partners in, clients' data is easily understood and it was a low-cost back-office and front-office implementation," said Yates.
David Sanderson, vice-president of enterprise integration at Hitachi Consulting, said attitudes to integration have changed.
"It's difficult to engage the business to demonstrate value from a pure integration project, but you can deliver a strategic vision within the context of the business and treat integration as a competency," he said.
"Don't have unrealistic expectations. Look at what you can do now on the journey, and get great people on board who are excited about delivery," concluded Sanderson.
Delegates put their questions to our panel of experts
The expert panel was:
Stephen Bayliffe, Compass Point Business Services managing director
Ian Storer, solution architect in the office of the CTO at law firm Allen & Overy
Jennifer Yates, chief technology officer at JLT Employee Benefit Solutions
David Sanderson, vice-president of enterprise integration at Hitachi Consulting
Rahul Garg, senior product manager for integration at Microsoft
Q: How easy were your integration projects?
IS: There was a lot of complexity in implementation, but we spent a lot of time up front during the design phase. Integration must be aligned with the business with a common set of rules. There may be an up-front cost, but downstream the cost drops off.
SB: The decision to procure wasn’t taken until the business understood what it wanted. We had workshops to thrash out compromises across departments and got talented people involved, but change management should be two-thirds of the effort.
RG: You have to first find out what the problem is. If you only have to connect three systems, you don’t necessarily need an integration layer, but if you have a complex system and want to grow, integration is necessary.
Q: What was the importance and role of governance?
IS: Governance ensured the vision for the platform and how to better use the systems implemented. Governance ensures I can move value and direct services to that end. Technical governance ensures development and delivery teams are focused in one direction.
Q: How do you report on the progress of projects to top management?
SB: Honesty is the best policy. In local government lots of people are concerned about voters, so delays need to be expressed in terms of impact on users. The message needs to be repeated, people need to be reminded and reporting clearly stated in terms of what matters.
JY: We had to have a platform that could be put in tomorrow so they knew we were roughly on budget. We are a Microsoft shop and Hitachi Consulting got on Microsoft’s side and BizTalk was an easy install which came in on time and on budget.
Q: With the number of people moving to the cloud, does integration become more or less important?
RG: There is no need for companies to throw away their investment but they can still invest in the cloud. For example, a company that has invested heavily in SAP will not want to throw themselves into the cloud which is the reason why middleware is so important and will become more important with the need to connect together.
Q: How far are we from having process-as-a-service and all integration dealt with in the cloud?
DS: The level of maturity is not in place but there is a roadmap, although we are a way from a governance and technology perspective. Ask yourself how comfortable you would be to put these processes in the cloud and know they are safe.