Best practices for combatting integration problems

Find out which methodologies successful solution providers follow to avoid system integration problems with customer projects.

Integration is the big problem that solution providers are there to handle for their customers, but that doesn't mean solving integration problems comes easy to them. Integrating new technologies with a customer's existing technologies or integrating disparate technologies to create a new, marketable solution both pose challenges that successful solution providers must learn to overcome.

In fact, ensuring ease of integration with existing products and technologies ranks as the fourth biggest challenge -- among a list of 25 challenges -- that solution providers face, according to a SearchITChannel Channel Directions survey conducted earlier this year among 279 solution providers in the United States and Canada.

"Integration is always tricky," said Benson Yeung, senior partner and founder of Triware Networld Systems LLC, a full-service consulting and integration company based in Santa Clara, Calif. "We rarely go to a client's site and start things from the beginning. We're always walking into a situation where customers already have something. It's always 'what do you have, what do you need,' and that implies integration: taking different solutions and making them work together as seamlessly as possible."

The challenge with integration is integration

Every vendor will tell you that every product is 100% backwards-compatible and plug-and-play, but I don't think we've ever run into a product where that's true.
Roger ChanningCTO, MicroTech

"That is the heart of the issue. Think of it as the bedrock issue: what a solution provider gets paid for. [Their] business is not selling Cisco, [for example,] as much as it is facilitating change in the customer's business by showing them how to overcome [integration] challenges," confirmed Ryan Morris, principal consultant at Boulder, Colo.-based Morris Management Partners.

"When you go to IBM, you get an integrated IBM solution. When you go to HP, they lead with an HP solution. But when you say, 'I already have Dell servers, and I'd like to add HP storage,' that can become problematic, and that's where the integration challenge comes from," said Roger Channing, chief technology officer at MicroTech, an integrated solutions provider based in Tysons Corner, Va. "That's where customers are coming from. They don't want to buy bits and pieces and integrate it themselves. They want one belly button they can press to say, 'Here is the solution.' It's our job to make sure the integration is done correctly."

An established process gets you partway there

A solution provider's role, analyst Morris explained, is to "design systematic processes for implementing a technology so that even if there's complexity or it's unfamiliar, it's step one, two, three. … 'I have step-by-step procedures that will give you a successful outcome,' [a provider will say]."

Experts agree that having an established process is key to addressing integration problems. MicroTech's Channing said his company's process calls for discovering and researching new technologies, designing and developing new solutions, testing and evaluating them, then prototyping and deploying them. "There's a real process that requires investment on the part of the technology integrator," he said.

The testing and evaluation portions of the process are particularly important. "Every vendor will tell you that every product is 100% backwards-compatible and plug-and-play, but I don't think we've ever run into a product where that's true. The testing and evaluation are imperative to ensuring that an integration is going to work. There's no such thing as plug-and-play or 100% compatible," Channing said.

Understand what you're getting into

Robby Hill, founder and CEO of Florence, S.C. -based HillSouth, an IT consulting firm offering managed services and integration services to small and medium-sized businesses, said his organization runs into challenges when customers' systems are set up in an overly complex manner. "When you're asked to do work on a complex system, things are going to fall through the cracks and unexpected things will happen," he said. It happens fairly frequently, he said, when big groups of people retire after working for 30 or 40 years on a system and the company is looking to use outsourcing in an expanded role.

Making integration easier

Experts offer the following tips for overcoming integration problems:

-- Get a clear understanding of the client's requirements and existing infrastructure.

-- Have an established and proven process in place that includes research and development, testing, and prototyping.

-- Test, test and test again before deploying a solution in the client's production environment.

-- Consider sticking to Tier 1 vendors, as they are generally more compatible with heterogeneous environments.

-- Get ahold of products while they are still in beta so you can work with them before customers start requesting them.

Customer executives have the idea that technology is complex and "don't understand there are ways to do things that are straightforward and easy to understand," Hill said. "Senior management is surprised that their setup may be more complex than the company's down the street. It takes time to explain to them in detail … that there's different things in their networks that will cause main costs to be higher or projects to take longer because they've inherited something that's above average in complexity," he said.

"We take really burdensome steps up front to make sure we have done a thorough analysis of a potential customer's systems to spotlight before we start any type of engagement or pricing what the potential pitfalls will be of taking them on as a customer. We're not afraid to say no or price them accordingly. We tend to sometimes overanalyze, but it pays off because we know what we're getting into before we start," Hill said.

Triware's Yeung agreed. "It's really about understanding the client's architecture. Know their requirements and the applications they are using," he said.

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