On Systems Integration – What’s the problem?

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Integrating business systems can be a nightmare, and we who talk confidently of ‘seamless integration’ during sales presentations know this well. The fact is that it’s often a difficult and complex task, and advances in technology have done little to make the task easier. Rather, as systems have become more complex, reaching us wherever we are on devices of many different kinds, integration has become more complex too.

XML, web services, BizTalk, middleware, all these ease the passage of bits and bytes from one system to another, but none solves the underlying problem, which is only partly a technical one.

systems integration

The issue is particularly acute for those of us who sell ‘best-of-breed’ solutions rather than ‘fully integrated’ solutions. A ‘fully integrated’ solution is one where all the functions you need for your business, from accounting, to manufacturing, to distribution, to HR, can be found in a single large piece of commercial software. Whatever integrations are necessary are already there in the software code itself, and in the database that the entire body of code shares.

A ‘best-of-breed’ solution, by contrast, has its own database and software processes and when integration is required, a separate process must obtain data from one database and pass it to another system.

Why is this difficult?

Part of the problem lies the fact that systems often speak very different languages. I don’t mean that they use different programming languages. They may do that too, but that’s not the point. They speak different languages because they don’t always share a common ‘understanding’ of the ‘events’ which drive them and they don’t usually represent ‘events’ or ‘transactions’ in the same way in their respective databases. They may come close, but the devil lies in the detail. What an ‘invoice’ is, or how it is represented in one system, may be different in another. How an ‘item’ is  represented may differ, and so on. At the heart of ‘fully integrated’ systems lie common concepts of what things are and how they are to be represented by data.

Another problem lies in the detection of change. When systems don’t share a database items that are more or less common to both must be replicated from one database to another (you must usually define which is the ‘master’ or the ‘slave’ in this respect) and the relationship may not be one-to-one. To keep both systems up to date you must detect changes as they occur in one in order to pick them up and copy them to the other. You must do this as rapidly as possible if you are not to cause inconsistencies in the behaviour of both.

And of course ‘fully-integrated’ systems complete their processes in response to an ‘event’ (such as the arrival and booking of a supplier invoice), all at once. Such processes are usually designed so that they entirely succeed or entirely fail. Integrated best-of-breed systems, on the other hand, must do things in sequence. Sometimes it matters if systems get out of step with one other, and sometimes one or more steps may fail.

So when you’re integrating best-of-breed solutions there’s an additional task you must execute from time to time. You’re constantly reconciling your systems to ensure completeness and consistency. This is, in itself, an overhead, but the cost of dealing with failure to reconcile, and the know-how you must possess in order to handle this, add further to your system management costs.

So why would anyone ever choose to buy best-of-breed software systems and go to the trouble of integrating them?

There are several good reasons:

  • ‘Fully integrated’ systems are hugely complex. They must cater for far more variation in implementation. They have many more ‘switches’ that you must know how to control.
  • Their complexity makes them more expensive to buy and to implement.
  • They cause more disturbance to the status quo during implementation because you must throw away everything you already have and start all over again.
  • They’re often not as powerful or clever in some particular areas, despite their complexity, so you’ll sometimes need to choose a best-of-breed solution because it fits your particular needs better. These particular needs may be what makes your company special.

Sometimes, indeed often, the implementation of best-of-breed solutions will be the right choice.

But, what’s the best way of minimising the risks?

Let’s look at that in the next post.

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Dizzy with Facts

At Vienna airport on Saturday morning I made the mistake of buying The Economist’s most recent little book of facts – The Pocket World in Figures, 2016 Edition. I love facts. I can’t get enough of them.

At first I was going to use the term factoid to describe these entertaining trivia but when I looked it up I was astonished to find that the word was coined by Norman Mailer, no less, in 1973 and was intended, originally, to refer only to false statements that we take as true simply because they are often enough repeated (such as that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space).

factoid

But, as Wikipedia documents, the word has shifted in meaning over the last forty years, and now it’s understood to refer to any trivial truth that is frequently repeated, is briefly fascinating, and instantly forgettable. Factoids of this kind are what you need if you want to win Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

And I’ve just offered you one.

I’m sometimes told by my partner that I’m a tiny bit autistic, and if that’s a fair description of someone who can read a list of facts for an hour or two, or pore over an atlas, then it’s probably true. I like to know about things, how they work, who made them, what they’re for. What is it to be human, after all, if not to have time for the pointless? Indeed, I just asked a swimming pool attendant here at our Montenegran holiday hideaway about the population of Montenegro (around 650,000) and I feel all the richer for knowing this.

The Economist’s little book is therefore a treasure trove for people like me. Here are some of the highlights:

I may never go to Rwanda, but I am delighted to know that Rwanda’s parliament has a higher proportion of female members than any other parliament in the world.

I am also interested and surprised to learn that there are more than three men for every woman in Qatar, and too few in Moldova, though I can’t see how to put this knowledge to good use.

Bulgaria has the slowest growing population of any country in the world.

Melbourne, in Australia, is the most ‘liveable’ city.

Norway is the country with the highest ‘human development index’, and is also the most democratic (Syria the least).

Sweden is the country with the most equal household income.

Macau and Singapore are less dependent on agriculture than any other countries and contain the most city-dwellers (100%). No surprise, I think, in both respects.

The United Kingdom is the eighth consumer of tea.

Albania produces all of its electricity from hydro-electric sources.

The Turks, working an average of 49 hours each week, are the most industrious in the world.

Brains are draining more rapidly from Myanmar than from any other country.

In terms of distance driven annually per car, Chileans are the world champions. Given how long and thin their country is this is not particularly remarkable.

The Swiss travel further by train each year than any other nationality. Presumably this has something to do with the famed reliability of their service.

In Monaco women may expect to live nearly 94 years, longer than the women of any other nation.

Both the men and women of Qatar are the most obese in the world (respectively 40% and 49.7% of those aged over 18).

The people of Myanmar are the most generous in the world in terms of the money and time they give to those in need.

In the United Kingdom, more new titles per head of population are published than in any other country.

The Czechs drink more beer than anyone else.

The United States imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other country.

Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world.

Don’t you feel richer for all these facts?!

A note on the title of this book…

How can facts and figures ever have a future date? It’s 2015 now, so how can The Economist’s pocket book be the ‘2016 Edition’? What facts can we know now that will certainly be true in 2016? True, many facts about 2015 may survive, but then why put them together under 2016?

Isn’t it the case that anything that’s certain enough to be true for all time is not, in fact, a fact. ‘2+2=4’ is not a fact, for example. Certainties of the logical or mathematical kind are not discovered, as facts are, they are derived.

Discovered facts, if they are true (as facts, logically must be) are understood to be true at the time of discovery. They may continue to be true in 2016, but crucially, they may not be.

No Room in Vienna

It’s hard to find a hotel room in Vienna these days, at least at an affordable price. When I paged through Trivago‘s meagre and unaffordable offerings two weeks ago (a rip-off rate of 300 EUR for an airport Novotel, for example), I wondered what on earth could be going on in the city, especially on a Friday night. Car show, business conference, political summit, Star Trek convention, Vienna Marathon, Madonna, Kylie or Shirley Bassey in town?

All my partner and I needed was somewhere simple for eight hours’ sleep between an evening train journey from Prague and a morning flight to Dubrovnik. Not worth paying 700 EUR for the splendid Hotel Sacher, I thought, however stylish it might be. Who wants to pay a lawyer’s hourly fees for just eight hours of bed and breakfast.

Foolish of me not to realise it was part and parcel of the refugee crisis, as the receptionist at our hotel (more like a hostel, really) explained. I’m still dubious, because you don’t really think of refugees booking hotel rooms, but perhaps the lower-cost end of the market is saturated and there are only four-star and five-star rooms left for regular travellers. Being a refugee from a dangerous country doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t afford to sleep in a hotel. The huddled masses at Vienna’s main railway station, however, suggest that many, perhaps even most, still sleep rough.

There weren’t any rooms left anyway at our hotel, even if they did have the wherewithal. In the ten minutes we spent at Reception checking in, at least two groups of people came looking for rooms. I have no idea if they were refugees. In any case there was no room at our inn, not even for ready money.

pylone

Asking for high prices seems extortionate in the circumstances. In this situation ‘revenue management’ (the clever way in which price is continuously adjusted to reflect demand) might almost be described as ‘racketeering’, but it’s the way the West works. Supply and demand, and market prices. How could it be better arranged?

At the railway station the next morning, bound for the airport, we came across crowds of migrants queuing for cigarettes, washing facilities and food. In the same concourse there’s one of those pretty Pylones shops (there’s one I visit regularly in Portobello Road just before friends’ birthdays), an Aladdin’s cave of delightful, ingenious, imaginative and colourful things that no one actually needs. No queue of migrants there, of course, but a few shoppers nevertheless browsing for things that might tickle a decadent fancy, their basic needs no doubt already met (though our breakfast at the hostel/hotel was conspicuously poor). Not that these are luxury items. It’s not Prada. But they are in no way necessary.

A starker contrast is hard to imagine. I suppose we should hope that somewhere, someday, these refugees will be fully paid up and prosperous members of our Western European club, able to buy such discretionary items, driven by desire rather than necessity, as we are most of the time.

Compare and Contrast – Microsoft and Google

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Last weekend we held a company conference in Visegrad, Hungary. It was a mixture of instruction, inspiration, and a drink called Jagermeister.

We are not a large group (LLP Group) but we managed to assemble around 70 of our marketing, sales and consulting staff from seven of our European branches at a pleasant hotel in Visegrad on the Danube for two full days of talks and discussions. Most of our presentations were about ourselves and what we do, but we decided also to step back from the day to day and contemplate the future. So we invited Microsoft and Google to present their visions of how the world will look in two consecutive formal sessions. We were lucky, I suppose, that both took us seriously enough to send a representative.

comparecontrast

Whilst the worlds of Microsoft and Google overlap in some areas (their interest in cloud computing, in desktop tools (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), in mobile technology (Windows Mobile and Google Android), and in search tools (Bing and Google)), what was surprising about these two giants of the tech-world was how different they are, to some extent in substance, but enormously in style.

First to go was Microsoft. A man in a dark suit from Microsoft’s Dynamics business software division talked about the ‘cloud’. This wasn’t enormously interesting. The future of computing is the cloud, he said, and it sounded like a dull future. It was the usual business PowerPoint presentation, heavily branded with the Microsoft logo, corporate and unremarkable.

The young lady from Google, by contrast, started with a picture of herself and her family and went on to present her ideas (and perhaps also Google’s) in an engagingly idiosyncratic, and almost entirely ‘unbranded’ way. ‘No brand’, it appears, is the Google brand. Be personal, individual, unusual, and cool, is the theme. Bring your family to the ‘table’. Life and work are a continuum. It’s the same message, I suspect, for both internal and external consumption, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it isn’t calculated.

She spoke about how the nature of IT is changing, how devices assail us (well, that’s probably an old-fashioned way of putting it!) in all sorts of ways all day, everyday and everywhere, but that predominantly it’s the mobile device that is determining the way we work and play. IT, even business IT, must live up the expectations of the new generation who spend their time on mobiles. If IT isn’t easy to use it will be forgotten.

I asked her afterwards how she thought this would affect the world of business software. It’s hard to see SAP or accounting systems on mobiles, I suggested. Maybe, she said, but young people don’t want to join corporations any more, they don’t want to be working with heavy-duty old-fashioned ERP, so business software must adapt. Young people have individual, creative, even ‘moral’ aspirations. Google the ‘anarchists’, it seems.

There’s a little truth in this, perhaps. The young are always idealistic. But the business software juggernaut will nevertheless roll on, adapting slowly and painfully to the easier-to-use styles of consumer software. The fact is that business systems become ever more complex, and will always take man-millennia to write and adapt. Complexity isn’t easy to fit into a mobile device.

You might as well say that literary authors must write novels of pamphlet length if they’re to be taken seriously by the next generations. Let’s make things easy, if that’s appropriate, but let’s not dumb down.

So the differences between Google and Microsoft are more about style than substance. Both are, in fact, highly organised and enormous business, juggernauts themselves. The first presents itself as anarchic and individualistic, the second as more sober and business-oriented. Both have been creative (occasionally) but neither can seriously pretend to be anything other than a large well-organised multi-national corporation, disciplined and deliberate.

And neither can Apple. All three of these are highly competitive and meticulously calculated in their moves, Microsoft perhaps driven more by business, Google more by the consumer, but both slaves to their respective markets. True, the consumer and the business worlds nowadays overlap, but there are still some things each company does that are unique. We’re tempted by Google’s cloud-based desktop tools, but they don’t yet have an answer to MS SQL.

When it comes to style, consumer-facing companies need a different image from business-facing companies and both must be careful when they need to face in both directions (note that Skype, largely consumer-facing, isn’t heavily branded by Microsoft as a Microsoft product). But I don’t strongly believe that the capacity of these companies for innovation is a function of their presentation style.

That said, during a separate presentation that I gave on our own systems@work products, I asked my colleagues what devices and what browsers they use. The majority use Android, and the majority use Chrome, so in that respect (and I was surprised), it’s 2-0 to Google. But then we all use Windows on our PCs, and SQL servers for our business applications, and Google doesn’t even compete with these.

Teetotal Tedium

I went to an after-work drinks event yesterday at the offices of an international law firm. It was organised by the International Business Forum, which brings together foreign and local business people from all walks of life. It’s a worthy cause. You never know when you might make a useful business contact, and the company is usually stimulating, intelligent and friendly.

business drinks

But I’d forgotten that I’m off the booze, and that you can’t do events like this without a glass of wine in your hand.

I’m actually off all sorts of things, on the orders of my doctor, Dr Babkova, in an attempt to reduce the acid, cholesterol and sugar in my blood, and the intersection of what I’m permitted to eat for all of these conditions contains just a few things such as radish, tomato and fish.

I’m an early arrival and find myself in a room that’s largely empty. I launch myself at a Peruvian man and suddenly I find myself talking about Chile, somewhere I’ve never been, know nothing about, and have no intention of visiting. It’s ‘the Switzerland of South America’, he tells me (mountains? chocolate? clocks? money?), a country that apparently embraced market economics under Pinochet and thereby raised the standard of living of nearly everyone in the country. I squirrel this away for later use, though I dimly remember having exactly the same conversation with the same man at a previous event some weeks ago.

I gate-crash a cluster of people I’ve known for years and we talk about the glacial pace of the legal profession.

‘Effectively a cartel,’ someone says.

‘The last unreformed profession,’ I say, as I always do.

We’re in the company of lawyers, but they don’t seem to demur.

Then I chatter with a man who runs a music bookshop. We talk about the Associated Board Grade Five Theory exam, and about whether an algorithmic approach could be useful for the Grade Seven Theory melody exercise (though how you carry an algorithm into a music theory exam I’m not quite sure). I tell him that my brother Jonathan wrote a Fortran program to generate harmonic progressions, and then, riffing away, I tell him that when we were at school together he also arranged Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for just oboe and flute.

‘They didn’t ask for an encore,’ I quip.

This isn’t true, and I don’t actually know why I’m saying it. What he actually did was to arrange Stravinsky’s Ragtime for just three instruments, but such is my desperation that I feel the need to stab at something bigger.

My drinking a glass of still water instead of alcohol provides for a few minutes’ conversation as I meander around the room, but I begin to fear I may be repeating myself. In any case, it’s not a topic that catches fire.

An elderly acquaintance stands guard over a bottle of claret at the drinks table. ‘It’s a bottle of quite exceptional quality for an event like this,’ he tells me. He seems to have drunk most of it. I try a tiny splash and agree with him, but this, of course, just makes matters worse.

There’s an explanation for the excellence of the wine. The event, it seems, is sponsored by a French company who have provided champagne, wine and a few plates of fabulous cheese and salami (forbidden to me, of course, but I nibble them nevertheless).

There’s also a quiz – two sides of questions about the Eiffel Tower – and I come joint second with the owner of a university. My prize is a box of macaroons, but of course I’m not allowed to eat them. I hand them round and offer the last one, an enticing white one, to a man whose hair is exactly the colour of the macaroon.

‘I’m offering you this macaroon,’ I tell him, ‘because it’s exactly the colour of your hair.’

He doesn’t seem to mind my saying this, indeed chuckles almost gratefully.

Our hostess tells us she lunched at the British Embassy with a minister called Francis Maude.

‘It was a small lunch,’ she says. ‘Only twelve. The minister asked each of us to name the most annoying impediment to business development in the Czech Republic.’

‘I would have said “More trains”,’ I say.

My friend and former neighbour, an elegant elderly American lady, invites me to a business conference in Lvov.

‘Formerly Poland, and largely Roman Catholic,’ I trot out, as I always do whenever Lvov is mentioned. ‘My friend Tony visited it and found it empty and dull.’

I should really be promoting my business, though, so I chunter around the room muttering ‘MPs’ expenses,’ but to no avail. I long for the fire alarm to go off, or a stripper to have arrived at the wrong address, or even a small murder.

NEVER go to events like this unless you can drink a glass of wine or two. I wonder, in despair, how events like these can possibly work in places like Iran, where alcohol is entirely forbidden. You just can’t do business chit-chat on orange juice or water.

Marvellous Nonsense – Davros, Creator of the Daleks, is Back!

‘I try not to understand,’ says the Doctor. ‘It’s called an open mind.’

This is the kind of seductive and playful nonsense that makes Doctor Who such compelling drama. It’s a clever remark, has the ring of truth about it, but doesn’t bear examination. After all, understanding is what makes us unique. If we hadn’t tried to understand we’d still be living in caves.

But that’s Doctor Who. It’s not actually proper science or serious drama, even if it feels like it. The fun lies in how plausible it’s made to sound and how seriously it’s played.

‘It’s a psychic projection, or something‘ says an underling at UNIT, as the face of Missy looms out of a TV screen. UNIT’s commander is clearly irritated by ‘something’, but entirely at ease with ‘psychic projection’.

The first episode of Doctor Who Series 9 on BBC 1 on Saturday night was as good as it’s ever been. Davros and Missy (the re-gendered, regenerated Master) are back from the dead (‘Death is for other people, dear,’ says Missy), and I’m even beginning to enjoy Peter Capaldi in the role of the Doctor. What more might we ask for?

Certainly not logic. Doctor Who plays a game with us. For the nerds who know the twist, turn and dialogue of every episode it weaves an apparently consistent fabric out of everything that’s ever happened and everything the Time Lords have ever said about themselves. It’s a complete and coherent account of their planet, their history and their nature. Whatever happens there’s always an apparently plausible reason that makes sense within the structures and assumptions of the show. After all, we want it to make sense. We want it to be real. That’s drama.

davros

A mixture of solemn moralising, fanciful sci-fi, heroism, pathos and horror, in fact Doctor Who has it all. What it lacks, of course, is real logic. The logic of time travel is one of Steven Moffat’s specialities (remember the brilliant and prize-winning  Blink from 2007), and he manages it with incomparably greater brilliance and humour than Back to the Future ever did. But whilst, again in this episode, he’s having fun with the future causing the past, he’s also having fun ignoring the more basic and inconvenient logical problems of time travel (can you imagine, I actually studied some of the logical issues of time travel during my philosophy course at Oxford?).

The central fact of Saturday’s episode is that Davros is dying, but if you’re a time traveller with no particular commitment to any particular time Davros is always dying, and always being born. Why the call from the future or the past should come ‘now’ as opposed to ‘then’ is anyone’s guess. But who cares? The fun is in half believing it makes sense.

Another problem. ‘Where is the Doctor?’ doesn’t make sense, either. The Doctor belongs nowhere at any particular time, or may be in more than one place at once if he’s wherever he is  ‘at this moment’ more than once in his own timeline. Indeed, we’ve seen him in one place more than once.

But it’s churlish to find fault. Half-logic, half-plausibility, half-science, half-seriousness is the point of it, and I’ve suspended my disbelief every Saturday since the 1960s when the Doctor first appeared.

There’s half-morality too. Hackneyed though they are, the moral dilemmas these stories raise seem real enough at the time. The troubled figure of the Doctor (is he really a good Time Lord?) wrestles with moral choice as any realistic hero might, and in Doctor Who there isn’t always a good choice. (Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, by contrast, possesses a moral compass (an American one, obviously) that never fails to point him in the right direction.)

“if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?’

A flashback to Tom Baker’s Doctor of the 1970s illustrates the dilemma the current Doctor faces in this first episode. Should he rescue Davros the child, trapped in a ‘hand mine’ field, knowing, as he does, what Davros, inventor of the Daleks, will become? And does he rescue him, or abandon him? This first episode leaves us guessing.

I suspect we’re in for a morally subtle logical twist. It will be because the Doctor abandons him that Davros becomes the monster he becomes.

Such (fanciful) moral dilemmas (morality on holiday, as Wittgenstein might say) remind me of a 1975 science-fiction story Let’s Go to Golgotha, which describes a group of tourists time-travelling back to that moment when Pontius Pilate asks the crowd to choose between Christ and Barabbas. Cautioned about changing history and against standing out from the crowd, they chant ‘Barabbas’, only to realise that everyone in the crowd is a time tourist like them.

This first episode of the new series also shows Peter Capaldi growing into the role, or is it that we’re getting used to him? Anguish is what he does best, and in this new series they’re piling it on.  I can’t wait for next Saturday.

Crystal Landscape – A new painting by Daniel Pitin

I’ve just bought a new painting by the young Czech painter, Daniel Pitin (b. 1977). I’ve been buying his paintings for more than fifteen years, the first a year or two before he graduated from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 2001.

By chance, in the late 1990s, I saw one of Daniel’s student paintings in a magazine and I have been an enthusiast ever since. I’ve bought ten paintings altogether, and have seen his style evolve over the years, and his fame grow. He has exhibited all over the world, in Florida, California, Venice, Berlin, Vienna, London, and most recently in Shanghai. His paintings have rightly become ever more expensive –  a good thing, for him, at least, and perhaps also for me, should I ever wish to sell them(!).

This is the new painting – Crystal Landscape. I went a month ago to his studio in Prague to look at two paintings that had just returned from Shanghai, but this one caught my eye. It’s large, and since I have no more wall space at home, I’ll install it in the office and trust that my colleagues will like it.

cyrstal landscape

Daniel Pitin is represented by the Hunt Kastner Gallery in Prague. And you can also see more of his paintings here.

These are the nine paintings I’ve bought over the last fifteen years, starting with the most recent. The last, and the first that I bought, is a self-portrait.

DP9

DP2

DP3

DP4

DP1

DP6

DP7

DP8

DP5