To achieve the promise of the Internet era, interoperability is an absolute essential. Interoperability between products is required to reduce complexity for customers and allow them to focus on creating strategic advantage rather than solving the issues that arise when information technology systems don’t work together well. They can share data between disparate data sources and multiple applications. They can preserve their investments in existing systems through easy data interoperability, while accessing additional functionality and cost effectiveness that new technologies provide.
To better understand the dimensions of interoperability it is useful to view interoperability as a layered model with three layers – the first layer, right at the bottom deals with the ability of systems to exchange data, often called technical (or syntactic) interoperability. The second layer deals with correctly interpreting the data exchanged, or semantic interoperability. And the third layer, right on top, concerns organisational and process interoperability. In other words, interoperability is connecting people, data, and diverse systems. Microsoft is investing in interoperability so customers can get the most from existing IT infrastructures as well as next-generation technologies. To achieve this vision, we define interoperability to include various technical, semantic, and operational considerations.
n Connecting people refers to workflows and collaboration that occur within and between organisations at the “people” level.
n Connecting data addresses the need to access different data sources, optimise information flows, and integrate structured and unstructured data (databases and files).
n Connecting diverse systems includes technical and operational processes within and between organisations and ranges from simple connectivity between internal systems to industry frameworks that facilitate value-chain workflows.
From a design and implementation perspective, as systems and organisations become more complex, the relevance and importance of semantic and process interoperability increase sharply. Unfortunately, most organisations prefer to follow a ‘bottom-up’ approach of focusing just on technical interoperability, which is probably the easiest to achieve and therefore deceptive!
This can have serious consequences giving rise to prescriptive guidelines and ‘brittle’ systems that emphasise technical requirements rather than enterprise architecture and business requirements. Interoperability becomes difficult to achieve or breaks down for want of semantic and process consistency. The silos tend to remain silos!
Adherence to standards is one way to facilitate technical interoperability. However, simply adhering to standards does not guarantee interoperability because, one, a standard is merely a specification and different implementations of the standard may not work with each other; and two, the mere existence of a standard does not automatically imply it will achieve great market adoption or usage. A case in point here is the widespread adoption of the TCP/IP networking stack. This became the de facto standard for the Internet rather than the ISO developed Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) networking model which many expected would become the dominant standard.
From a standards perspective, a good strategy to achieve interoperability is to apply widely accepted open and industry standards based on pervasively used technologies. TCP/IP, HTML and XML, for example, are among the most common open standards that allow users to use the Internet for information exchange irrespective of the source and destination platforms. The standards framework should, therefore, be non-prescriptive and technology neutral to allow the Government maximum flexibility in the choice of technology, promote competition and provide freedom of choice to its constituents in the choice of technology.
What, then, is the right approach? Organisations that choose to adopt a ‘top-down’ approach to interoperability concentrating on process definition and semantics avoid brittleness in their systems. This leads to the development of implementation guidelines driven by business requirements which can keep pace with market evolution rather than a
set of straitjacketed rules. Projects are personified by business value rather than technical requirements. Real interoperability becomes feasible and silos disintegrate.
To sum up, interoperability is not merely about technology or technical standards. It is much more about the organisations, processes and semantics of information. Without an adequate focus on these it’s easy to be drawn into a technology driven ‘bottom-up’ approach which, historically, has failed to deliver the desired results. A holistic approach to interoperability should be anchored around enterprise architecture to ensure a ‘top-down’ approach and provide a framework for planning,design and implementation
(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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