Interoperability: The ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information.
From increased productivity and maximum efficiency to enhanced collaboration and reduced costs, there are many upsides to the proliferation of technology across the business enterprise.
There’s also at least one downside, however: increased complexity.
In their early days, IT environments were technically sophisticated but practically straightforward. Managing them was like putting together a 500-piece puzzle. Although it took a little time and a modicum of head scratching, putting the pieces together was a relatively simple task. Because they encompass infinitely more users, customers, systems and service providers, today’s IT environments more closely resemble the 3,000-piece puzzles that take even the most committed puzzle aficionados hours—days, even—to complete.
To ensure their teams can always piece the puzzle together, no matter how large or complicated it becomes, IT administrators must make business continuity a top priority when they’re building their organization’s IT infrastructure. Interoperability can help guarantee disparate IT systems and applications—especially cloud services—can communicate and exchange data with one another.
As organizations adopt new systems and integrate existing ones, they should consider the following three IT interoperability principles:
1. Open Connections
IT systems typically inter-operate with one another in two ways: through external protocols, on top of which developers can build applications (for example, SMTP and IMAP, the open email protocols that allow Google’s Gmail application to interface with other email applications), and through application program interfaces (APIs), which give developers programmatic access to proprietary software applications. IT administrators pursuing interoperability should choose vendors that allow external developers to connect to their products through both types of open connections.
2. Industry Standards
IT vendors that promote interoperability typically support usage of key industry standards in their product releases and contribute to the development of new principles through participation in standard-making organizations. Such guidelines provide a common language and shared set of expectations across platforms and applications, ensuring broad compatibility for customers.
Interoperability standards can be found, for example, in health care, where the rapid adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) has spawned the development of standards like Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR, pronounced “fire”), a draft standard outlining data formats and an API for exchanging EHRs via the web. Health care organizations and software vendors that adopt FHIR make it possible to exchange health information across systems and applications the same way one can send emails from a Mac to a PC, or from a Gmail account to a Yahoo! account—seamlessly.
3. Data Portability
Having the ability to create and store data using one software product and access it using another provides more flexibility—and a more versatile user experience. In the financial industry, for example, the Open Financial Exchange (OFX) data-stream format allows financial institutions and their customers to move information between platforms.
If IT administrators pursuing interoperability prioritize software vendors that support the use of industry standard formats and the development of their own open data formats, data portability most likely won’t be a concern, but it’s a good idea to confirm that’s the case before implementing a system. “Import” and “export” functions are critical features to look for.
From cost to scalability to security, IT administrators already have a long list of boxes to check when evaluating new IT systems and solutions. As cloud services become more prevalent, however, and IT environments evolve into even more complex systems, interoperability should be another can’t-miss item on their vendor checklist.