Sort Out The System Jumble

Industry standards let customers mix and match best-of-breed systems--but it's far from a snap

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 14, 2003

5 Min Read

By now, systems integration should be easy. After all, business-technology managers have years of experience connecting computer systems so they can work together -- surely they've worked out all the kinks. In fact, systems integration is only getting more complex. These days, it means more than merely linking a PC to a mainframe. And despite industry hardware standards and networking protocols designed to let companies mix and match systems and buy best-of-breed products, systems integration still isn't easy.

The simplest approach to systems integration still is to buy all your equipment from one vendor. "Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, or IBM will ship you preconfigured, in a rack, all the wiring and hardware and software you could want," Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice says. In addition, systems-management software such as HP's Utility Center and Sun's N1 are designed to let an IT manager reconfigure and reallocate processing power and other resources to meet changing needs without having to call in consultants.

But few businesses use only one vendor, and that's when problems arise. Most businesses have a hodgepodge of servers and storage systems from a variety of vendors. And most vendors aren't eager to have their powerful servers act as clients to another vendor's server. The most common problem is connecting Unix systems to Windows systems, despite vendor claims to the contrary, Eunice says. "For simplicity, customers must stick with server islands."

That's a problem Roy Cashman understands. The CIO at Ruan Transportation Management Systems, a $750 million-a-year logistics company and renter of heavy-duty trailers, tractors, and trucks, including fleets and drivers, has a mix of servers: IBM's iSeries, Windows machines from Dell, and Unix systems from HP. Ruan has short-term relationships with many drivers and trucks, based on specific jobs. "We need to rapidly move suppliers in and out of our service," Cashman says.

He views each server platform as a silo and uses a Web interface in front of the legacy iSeries servers to access data on those systems. But it's difficult to move applications and data among the various server platforms, Cashman says, and he plans to launch a multiyear initiative this summer to revamp and simplify his IT infrastructure. "Integration isn't any harder today, thanks to standards such as File Transfer Protocol and XML, but it isn't any easier, either," he says.

For some businesses, full integration isn't necessary. They're happy if systems can share some information. George Wasickanin, network and Web administrator at gun manufacturer Crosman Corp., uses Lotus Notes to achieve a basic level of integration between an enterprise resource planning application, a production system, and three Web sites running on three iSeries servers, nine IBM xSeries Windows servers, and an Advance 2000 network-attached storage system from a local reseller.

Crosman uses Lotus Notes to share information with gun distributors, who get to view production and shipping data in real time, and to gather information on consumers that's shared with a number of applications. When a customer contacts a service rep via Crosman's call center, for example, some of the data gathered ends up in Windows and some ends up on an iSeries server. "Prior to Lotus Notes, we didn't have such integration between the iSeries and Windows," Wasickanin says.

Storage networking lets Archipelago's Rubinow integrate products from EMC, IBM, and Hitachi Data Systems

Many businesses wouldn't consider that approach to be real systems integration. Stock exchange Archipelago, for example, has 1,000 HP and Sun servers and transfers information between Solaris and Windows easily. But achieving that level of integration required a lot of programming in C++, chief technology officer Steve Rubinow says. The homegrown software causes Solaris not to care where the data comes from. "It's transparent from one server to another," he says. "But if we take it one level up -- to, say, a cluster -- the integration is a lot of work."

Another approach is to use independent management software vendors, which already support every server platform. Vendors include BMC Software, Computer Associates, Legato Systems, and Veritas Software. Those apps can read management data from most servers and take action when there's a problem, but there isn't a comparable product for storage systems, says analyst Jon Oltsik at Hype-Free Consulting. "In the server world, it's old hat to look at other systems," he says. "Storage is still light-years behind."

Most storage vendors this year plan to support the Storage Management Interface Specification, adopted by the Storage Networking Industry Association, which should make it easier to integrate products from various vendors.

Rubinow at Archipelago says storage networking is the way he achieves integration between products from EMC, IBM, and Hitachi Data Systems. Before he had a storage area network, he had to relegate certain apps to one storage system only. "Now we take the storage devices, SAN software, and the right switches, and we're sharing data between the different storage systems," Rubinow says. "We gained a lot of flexibility with the SAN."

Three of the leading storage vendors have committed to improving integration. EMC, HP, and IBM have all said they'll back new standards designed to promote interoperability. "Customers today are demanding that server and storage vendors be open," says Pete Korce, HP's enterprise business manager. "If the systems don't integrate, customers lose investment protection."

It's a positive development for customers to see vendors all speaking the same language about systems integration, analyst Eunice says. But more work needs to be done. "They're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," he says, "but customers are still in the middle of it."

Photo by Jeff Sciortino

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