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Digital transformation sounds great, doesn't it? The phrase is used to describe a paradigm where everything is connected—people, systems, applications, data, and devices. Salesforce.com efficiently talks to your ERP system. Everything from point-of-sale devices, to fleet cars and trucks, to remote locations, to medical or manufacturing equipment, and even employees with wearable devices are all connected and serving as intelligent inputs. And, they're all in sync with your datacenter in real time. Systems of record and systems of engagement seamlessly connect and new business processes can be integrated or changed in days, not months or years. User experience is consistent and IT is able to easily see and control systems to keep them from spinning out of control.

Yes, this does sound great. But is it possible, and if so, how do you get there? Let's answer those questions with another question: What's your integration strategy?

Digital transformation places increasing demands on IT to deliver and manage complex environments, especially when it comes to integration architecture and technology. For example, connecting different applications requires more than simply connecting their APIs. What about data transformations, business processes and rules of engagement? Also, connecting your business with the Internet of Things (IoT) requires more than simply connecting the “things.” What about the data those things generate? The heart of any digital enterprise is a robust, scalable integration architecture. Perhaps your organization is one of many with an aging architecture that is throttling productivity and stifling your ability to innovate. Meanwhile, competitors taking advantage of modern approaches to integration may be surging ahead.

If you're not currently re-evaluating your integration strategy, it's probably time to do so. Here are three considerations to keep in mind as you modernize your integration architecture, strengthen your ability to innovate, and sharpen your competitive edge.

#1: Hub-and-spoke vs. modular integration architecture

Many integration vendors offer traditional enterprise service buses (ESBs) designed to integrate artifacts in a single, centralized location. As a result, the majority of IT organizations are operating on outdated, monolithic, hub-and-spoke-based ESB architectures. Even with a new, pretty user interface, this approach may limit your productivity in the future, if it hasn't already.

An old-style ESB approach can stifle innovation, be extremely expensive, scale poorly, and doesn't lend itself to cloud and hybrid deployments. The trap many fall in to is trying to re-architect integration architectures on the fly with the same old components in an attempt to address new use cases and deliver the required scalability. This can be costly and complicated because to scale even the smallest module within a monolithic architecture, you would need to scale the entire solution. These limitations on flexibility and scalability are exactly what restrict viability in cloud and hybrid architectures, such as integration Platform-as-a-Service (iPaaS), which are all about dynamic scalability and utility usage.

Instead of limiting your capabilities with a hub-and-spoke architecture, think instead about a lightweight, modular approach to integration. This frees you from the constraints of a monolithic architecture so you can become more flexible and agile to drive rapid innovation. While modern, modular integration technology supports old-style centralized deployments, it also enables distributed architectures, which facilitate cloud adoption and embrace diverse use cases. As organizations create agile development teams that build—or simply compose adaptive applications using APIs or microservices—they need to pursue a similarly lightweight and modular approach to integration. Hub-based integration forces enterprises to stick to traditional, centralized team approaches to maintain the centralized architecture. A modular approach can give you the flexibility, lower cost, and reduced complexity you need to deliver new products and adaptive services to customers faster than your competitors.

#2: Open source, open standards, or proprietary

Open source has many advantages over proprietary models, including avoidance of vendor dependency, and increased adaptability, interoperability and collaborative innovation. When you think about major areas of innovation over the past five years, the majority have come out of open source communities and development models. So it makes sense to build a modern integration architecture with open source solutions. However, not all open source is created equally.

Open source community projects are free and release early and often, which is great for innovation but not so great for long term stability. There is no guaranteed support and features may drop from version to version. Then there is “open core,” where only part of the product is open source and the vendor sells proprietary extensions that may differ materially from the open source version. The products are supported, but there are significant drawbacks. For example, open core vendors typically don't send new features or patches back upstream to the core community projects. As a result, open core products may fail to harness the power of open source. You may also bound by closed source licensing terms, which limits your flexibility to keep running the solution if you decide to walk away. The sweet spot is enterprise open source. In this model, the enterprise products are 100 percent open source, so successful features are harnessed in the product and contributed back upstream to the community projects. They are also supported and distributed by a reputable vendor who adds value by integrating multiple community projects into enterprise products with uniform release cycles, single patch and update streams, and 24x7 support. This helps deliver the innovation without the risk.

Pure play open source vendors also tend to participate in and drive multiple robust, diverse communities such as the Apache Software Foundation, Kubernetes, docker, and many others. Such vendors can have significant influence in open source communities which you can take advantage of by using them as a conduit to inject your needs into the upstream community projects.

With regard to integration, open source and open standards go hand in hard. The Apache Camel community project, a versatile open source integration framework, illustrates this. Apache Camel is extremely popular because it focuses on making integration easier and more accessible to developers by providing concrete implementations of widely used Enterprise Integration Patterns (EIPs), and making it easier to wire them together. The other benefit of standards-based integration is that there's generally a broad base of developers and architects with Apache Camel and EIP experience to choose from when looking to build or augment your team.

#3: Breadth of vendor capabilities

A modern integration architecture includes more than just an enterprise service bus (ESB). Working with a vendor that can offer the breadth of required functionality can provide a significant advantage. Specifically, one that mitigates the disadvantage of having to cobble together components and deal with disparate licensing agreements from multiple vendors. At a minimum, your integration capabilities check list should include: messaging, web services, transformation, connectivity, APIs, data integration, and a modular, robust, scalable, standards-based (JEE or OSGI) runtime environment. Ideally, your vendor should also provide a broad set of offerings all the way up the stack.

Complementary middleware capabilities can include decision management, process orchestration, application development and management, device and data sync, and distributed caching—as well as a reliable, secure runtime platform, storage, virtualization, cloud, management, and mobile.

Yes, mobile. When it comes to mobile, your vendor should offer application development and deployment tools as well as management and monitoring capabilities. That way, your vendor will be able to support you as you extend your existing IT investments into mobile and launch brand new mobile initiatives that inspire you to reuse and reinvent your old assets to meet new requirements.

As hybrid architectures become increasingly popular, some of your workloads may run on-premise and the rest in the cloud. As a result, the ability to deliver consistent implementations and experiences across each environment can make your integration architecture easier to manage and free up your teams to focus on innovating and delivering business value.

Final Thoughts

Modernizing your integration strategy and architecture is key to digital transformation. The right integration strategy can help you become a connected enterprise and thrive in today's increasingly complex and demanding business environment. As you evolve your integration strategy and architecture, keep these important considerations in mind:

  • The architecture design and technology you choose should enable you to deliver a modular approach to integration that supports new requirements such as microservices-based development.
  • The solution should include open standards such as Apache Camel and open source software—both in terms of technology and licensing model—to deliver the benefits of open source while mitigating the risks.
  • The vendor you choose should deliver comprehensive capabilities. Look not only for application and data integration capabilities, but also for enterprise messaging, application runtimes, mobile, and business process management offerings that will reduce complexity and allow your IT organization to focus on innovation.

The time to address these questions is now. Failing to do so can only result in loss of opportunity and competitive disadvantage.