What’s Your Integration Strategy?

In today’s podcast, I talk with Jack Williams, global business development lead for EdgeFrontier, Intergraph SG&I, about the critical importance of having an integration strategy. He also shares tips for integrating systems across different platforms.

Laura Beth: Thank you for joining us for an Intergraph SG&I podcast. I’m your host, LauraBeth Ezzell. In today’s podcast, we are talking with Jack Williams who is a business developer at Intergraph. Jack is based in Fairmont, West Virginia. Jack, thank you for joining us.

Jack: My pleasure.

Laura Beth: Jack is here to talk with us about a strategy for integrating different systems across different platforms. Integrating different systems can be a challenge, and Jack, you know a better way for agencies to handle this process. First, just tell us about your role at Intergraph.

Jack: I’m typically just called the “EdgeFrontier Guy,” just kidding. My formal title is global business development lead for EdgeFrontier products. I’ve worked with EdgeFrontier since 2004. I started out as one of the original developers. Now, my main role at Intergraph is to work internally and externally with Intergraph and Hexagon to promote and evangelize EdgeFrontier. That includes anything from training and speaking, to tech support, project support, sales support, you name it. It’s a little bit of everything, but the main idea is to evangelize EdgeFrontier.

Laura Beth: Why is integration and having an integration strategy important for agencies and organizations?

Jack: At the heart of most public safety agencies are the CAD and RMS systems and the ability of agencies to integrate and connect their CAD and RMS systems with outside applications, systems, and devices. Both inside and outside of the firewall, this is critical for them, as an agency, to gain a better sense of what is going on in their community.

In today’s landscape, it’s critical that agencies can gather all the data points they need, take selected bits and pieces, and make a complete picture out of the summary of those parts. If they can do this, it helps them innovate, respond to change quickly, and be able to use their existing assets.

For example, what about all the information silos that inevitably build up within an organization? Or what about automating some day-to-day tasks and business processes that currently costs time and money due to inefficiencies?

Or, how is your agency going to handle the new technologies of the 21st century, such as the SMACT landscape? SMACT is an acronym which stands for social, mobile, analytics, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. How is your organization going to adapt to these new technologies as they come on?  These are just some examples of things that agencies to have to think about and why it’s important for them to have a plan.

Integration, and having a strategy for integration, within an agency is very important, and if agencies don’t start planning ahead now, this is a cheesy line, but, they can prepare to get “SMACT” in the face moving forward.

Laura Beth: It’s funny how things work together, but it’s also very true. Social, mobile, analytics, cloud, and internet of things, they’re all here and an agency has to be able to handle them. What types of problems do organizations usually face when trying to connect or integrate different interfaces?

Jack: Mainly, a lack of flexibility and affordability. That’s because there’s a high cost and complexity involved in developing and maintaining interfaces. For most public safety agencies, the interfaces aren’t easy-to-use technologies that tie into their CAD or RMS systems and allow them to efficiently interface with third parties. That’s the main challenge: lack of flexibility and affordability and costs and complexity.

Laura Beth: How can organizations improve this process?

Jack: What I tell organizations is to consider the options available. Consider the technologies out there, and then develop a plan. To help organizations come up with a plan, I use a very simple exercise. Ask yourself where are you now and where do you want to be? Pretty simple. Then once you figure that out, come up with how do I get there?

When you’re an agency and thinking where you are now, think about what connections are lacking in your current organization when it comes to helping you get the full picture? Are there existing information silos or underutilized IT assets that could be integrated into your CAD or RMS, or into your enterprise as a whole? Are there automatic notification interfaces that could immediately create a return on investment and impact in your organization? Multi-agency cooperation is a pressing a need. How easy is it for you to communicate with neighboring agencies? It’s a need that’s not going away, and it’s gaining more and more momentum. The bottom line is: do you want to be reactive or proactive?

Now, where do you want to go? With the advent of SMACT and the sheer number of devices and data points that are going to come online in the next three to five years, how is your agency going to connect to these things? Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years as it pertains to connecting what typically was a very isolated world in the CAD or RMS space? Do you want to be an innovator or a reactionary? These are questions that you need to ask yourself as an agency.

Laura Beth: How does a company “figure out how to get there”? What are the technology options available for Intergraph clients to integrate with other systems?

Jack: Right now, the million dollar question is “How do you get there?” The answer depends on the client. Each agency is different. Each organization has different tools and technologies available to them. Fortunately, Intergraph provides its customers with the technologies and tools to help them tackle this challenge and build an integration plan.

First, an agency needs to understand what options are available. You can buy a commercial off-the-shelf interface from a vendor, like Intergraph, or you can build it from scratch. With a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) interface, it is a basic interface that does one thing, and it does that one thing well. It’s not the most flexible system in the world, but it works, and it’s specifically built to tie “System A” to “System B.” It’s usually version dependent. However, there’s not a COTS interfaces for every application that an agency will want to connect to, and it’s going to be unreasonable to think that you’re going to have a COTS interface for every potential system application or device out there. So, the second option is to build from scratch.

Now, when you build from scratch, an agency typically pays someone else to build an interface for them, such as Intergraph or a third party consultant. Or an agency can build or manage its own interfaces. When it comes to building from scratch, whether it’s you as the customer or whether you’re paying Intergraph, historically there have been two behind-the-scenes methods to get this done. One is customer development, and the other is enterprise service buses, also known as ESBs. Customer development is typically impractical; you have stove pipe point-to-point interfaces that are not adaptable and reusable. Anytime something changes on either side of the equation you have to go in and rebuild the whole thing. It is a maintenance nightmare.

With enterprise service buses, you get a wide range of features, loaded with a wide range of features, and you get the reusability aspects that you need. However, there are very, very high start-up costs and ongoing maintenance costs. It’s pretty much a very large all-or-nothing vision that is overkill for most integration.

What agencies really want and really need are affordability and flexibility when it comes to interfacing. Agencies need an integration solution in the middle of these two approaches that enables rapid, affordable interfaces tailored exactly to their needs. The good news is there is with EdgeFrontier.

Laura Beth: So what is EdgeFrontier?

Jack: EdgeFrontier is a do-it-yourself general-purpose integration platform for IT professionals and developers, which enables affordable interfaces tailored exactly to the needs of an organization. It’s very lightweight, yet powerful for integrating information flows, business processes, and sharing data. It’s flexible too, EdgeFrontier isn’t an all or nothing vision, so it can be deployed as a stand along integration approach or along side other integration approaches and middleware, such as enterprise service buses.

Most importantly for Intergraph customers is that we have pre-built interfaces to our core products at Intergraph and Hexagon. For example, I/CAD, WebRMS, I/Security, and GeoMedia all have pre-built interfaces and the power of EdgeFrontier that allow us and our customers to build organization-specific features around our core products, ultimately making our core products work better for us and our clients. That’s what EdgeFrontier is, and some of the impact it can have for an agency.

Laura Beth: From a customer perspective, where does EdgeFrontier fit in the larger Intergraph Integration Framework?

Jack: That’s a good question, and something a customer needs to consider as they’re developing an integration strategy. As an Intergraph customer, I think that you get the best of both worlds. We have several commercial off-the-shelf interfaces for common systems already that can be leveraged. These are solid tested interfaces and ready-to-go common systems that you can interface within the public safety universe. They are solid, typically do one thing, and do it well.

You have those for existing products, but in the future there will be more interfaces developed. These will come up more and more, especially in the next three to five years. EdgeFrontier handles all of our new stuff.

Overtime, the commercial off-the-shelf interfaces will be replaced by EdgeFrontier configurations; however, right now on we have commercial off-the-shelf integration solutions that work. If it works, we’re not going to replace it at this moment in time. What we’re doing is using EdgeFrontier to tackle anything new, and anything that we currently don’t support, or our clients don’t support.

Essentially, we have commercial off-the-shelf systems that are very common, and then we have EdgeFrontier to handle everything else. With that approach, we feel like we provide our clients with a good integration framework to tackle their interfacing needs.

Laura Beth: Does EdgeFrontier give organizations the ability to manage their interfaces or build a better strategy around this process?

Jack: Yes it does. And not only do we use EdgeFrontier internally to build interfaces for our clients and to make our core products better, we also provide EdgeFrontier to our customers to allow them to build and manage their own interfaces for their Intergraph core products. It’s a very unique concept that separates Intergraph from its competitors in the market place.

This allows an organization to take ownership, so they’re empowered. And it allows them to make their core products, their core solutions, and work better for them because they can tailor specific features around the core products that are specific to their agency.

In addition, EdgeFrontier can work alongside other approaches to make a “hybrid solution,” so like EdgeFrontier working with a service bus. EdgeFrontier can be plugged in to help create new integration strategy, or help you build a better integration strategy by plugging the holes in some of the other approaches you can take.

EdgeFrontier gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to managing and building a better strategy for integration.

Laura Beth: You’ve mentioned some benefits, but what’s the ultimate benefit here? Is it time, money?

Jack: Money. More specifically, lowering the total cost of ownership of interfaces and enabling new innovations. That’s really what it’s all about. Interfaces are risky. They cost a lot of money to maintain and to enhance as things change. The benefit is found in lowering the curve of the total cost of ownership for interfaces. That’s the most important benefit for a customer.

The second, I would say, is it enables innovation. It helps you to be a leader in innovating and creating strategic partnerships. Those are the two ultimate benefits.

It also optionally, if a client so desires, empowers them because they can now take EdgeFrontier and build and manage their own interfaces. So, that’s another benefit; in the fact that we put the keys in your hands and let you use EdgeFrontier to tackle your own problems. It provides a level of empowerment.

Laura Beth: Jack you have shared a lot, but is there anything I haven’t asked you about or some tips that you would like to share with our audience?

Jack: I think I’ve thrown a lot at you in the short time that we have. But, the main take away I would want agencies to walk away with is the need to start thinking about the importance of integration and creating an integration strategy. Also, I challenge you to think about the importance of integration, not only for your core Intergraph products, but for integration as a whole, outside of your Intergraph core solutions.

Just some general thoughts I’d recommend that an agency maybe do some of the things that I’m about to mention to help you start thinking about your integration strategy and putting together a plan:

  • Start looking at integration as an on-ramp to innovation as opposed to a roadblock.
  • Take inventory of your old, current, and new interfacing opportunities.
  • Think how you could make your Intergraph core product work better for you
  • Determine which interfaces would provide the most impact.
  • Tackle the small interfaces first that can show immediate ROI (try to think of five).
  • Determine do you want to outsource or build your own. Do you want to go with a Hybrid?
  • Do you need consulting services?

A couple of other things to consider in the landscape of integration is, one, understand that things will change, and, two, in the world of interfacing, you’re in the middle between two things and those two things will change. So, understand that things will change, and you need to be able to respond to that as quickly as possible.

Always have a good test environment. I know it’s kind of technical jargon here but it really helps to build quality interfaces that meet organization specific requirements. Also, when you are writing requirements or working together with your vendor, like Intergraph, to define what an interface should look like and how it should function, focus on good laymen’s terms requirements.

Those are just some ideas that I think agencies should start thinking about and hopefully they’d walk away with some motivation to do so.

You know, as the author Alan Lake in famously said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Laura Beth: Very well said and these are some great points. We hope that many will go through them and start integrating a strategy for their interfaces. Jack, we appreciate your time and thank you for being our guest. You can learn more about EdgeFrontier solutions by visiting our website at intergraph.com/edgefrontier.

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