A systems integrator (SI) is an individual or business that builds computing systems for clients by combining hardware, software, networking and storage products from multiple vendors.
Using a systems integrator, a company can align cheaper, preconfigured components and commercial off-the-shelf software to meet key business goals, as opposed to more expensive, customized implementations that may require original programming or manufacturing unique components.
Hiring a systems integrator to combine various subsystems into an integrated solution can also simplify contracting and vendor management for the customer, who would otherwise need to purchase each subsystem separately and work with multiple vendors. Systems integration is thus both a procurement method and technical activity.
What does a systems integrator do?
The task of systems integration often begins with a client meeting, or a series of meetings, in which the systems integrator assesses the client's business needs and defines the technical requirements for an IT system that meets those needs. The resulting integration plan sets the foundation for the integration process. That process may involve designing or building a customized architecture or application and integrating it with new or existing hardware, packaged or custom software, and networking infrastructure.
With the rise of cloud computing, the systems integrator may also play a role in integrating on-premises IT systems with cloud-based applications or computing infrastructure.
Examples of major systems integrators
Systems integrators emerged in the 1980s, when large organizations began seeking integrated IT systems.
In 1982, the Army awarded its landmark $656 million Project Viable contract to Electronic Data Systems (EDS). That 10-year deal, which called for the creation of an integrated administrative data processing system, established EDS as a systems integrator.
Other notable systems integrators of that period included Andersen Consulting, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), IBM and SHL Systemhouse.
In the following decades, the large systems integrators transformed into broader IT services providers, and some were acquired or rebranded. Andersen Consulting, for example, became Accenture in 2001, following its break up with accounting firm Arthur Andersen. SHL Systemhouse was acquired by MCI Communications, and was subsequently sold to EDS in 1999. EDS was purchased by Hewlett Packard Enterprise in 2008 for $13.9 billion and it became HP Enterprise Services. In 2017, CSC merged with HP Enterprise Services to create DXC Technology.
Systems integrator business model
Today, some IT services companies still identify themselves as systems integrators, but, for the most part, systems integration is one of many services an IT services company provides within a portfolio of offerings.
The advent of IT outsourcing in the late 1980s and 1990s, the emergence of managed services in the late 1990s and the arrival of cloud services in the 2000s led to the creation of hybridized business models. An IT services company often provides a mix of consulting services, systems integration, managed services and cloud services. Systems integration has become less of a business model and more of a business line.
Systems integrators vs. VARs
Value-added resellers (VARs) and systems integrators are company categories that overlap. A VAR resells hardware, software and networking products and often provides services to create unified IT solutions. In that capacity, a VAR acts as a systems integrator. Conversely, a systems integrator may act as a VAR, reselling products to customers as part of a systems integration project.
One point of differentiation: VARs tend to focus on small and midsize business customers and small-scale IT systems, while systems integrators, on the other hand, tend to engage with large enterprise customers and work on large-scale projects that can span multiple customer locations or, possibly, multiple countries.