Finding middle ground in integration

Wayne Mills is the chief information officer and vice-president of Trillium Health Centre, one of Canada’s largest community hospitals serving one million residents in Mississauga, Ont., and west Toronto. Trillium has a growing and complex infrastructure, and is currently tackling a seven-year, $100-million patient record integration project called THINK (Transforming Healthcare into Integrated Networks of Knowledge.)

Mike Moser is the chief information officer of IP Devco, a firm that provides third-party online payment processing solutions to a diverse set of clients including the online gaming industry. At peak times, it handles approximately 1,000 concurrent transactions representing more than $2 million per day in gross transactions. The company’s major challenge is to integrate disparate systems, especially as the online gaming industry continues to consolidate.

Igor Nesmyanovich is the director of technology at D Three Inc., an integrated marketing firm focused on creating on-line, interactive campaigns for its clients including Labatt’s Breweries, Coca Cola and Country Style. It offers its services, which include data analysis, customer relationship management, order fulfilment and portal development, through a platform called IntelliMax. It provides its services through two external data centres as well as doing internal development.

Computing Canada: Talk a bit about your operating environments.

WAYNE MILLS: As an organization, we have a very broad IT infrastructure. We have two data centres and a large number of servers running many different operating systems. A lot of them are Windows-based and others are Unix. Our databases are Oracle, Sybase and Magic.

We have a growing and complex structure that we are now building for the future.

IGOR NESMYANOVICH: From a technology perspective, we provide services through two external data centres and we do some internal development. We use Microsoft SQL Server, both Oracle Standard and Oracle Enterprise databases running on open source and Microsoft environments.

MIKE MOSER: We run a variety of databases including IBM DB2, Oracle, SQL Server and MySQL. In term of operating systems, we run on Windows and Red Hat Linux. We have recently consolidated mostly to HP servers. As consolidation moves through the online gaming industry, we want to standardize some of these platforms.

CC: What in your organizations is driving the need for integration?

MILLS: It’s the requirement to serve our patients and to service our community. Health care is a very complex world with many organizations and many people working in it. Internally, we have a large integration problem in that we have a lot of systems with disparate data that have to be brought together and integrated. Internally, we have systems that don’t communicate and don’t share data. Externally, we need to work with many other organizations in health care locally, regionally and nationally. In doing that, we have to share a lot of data and we have an integration issue, different systems, different data structures. We have to do this because the patient expects his information to be shared in a secure environment when needed.

NESMYANOVICH: I see two dimensions: one is integrating information from our customers from Web sites, off-line channels and, all the places where a customer touches. Secondly, we deal with suppliers using e-commerce and fulfilment. We accept orders, receive status notices and take external customer service requirements.

MOSER: The online gaming industry saw organizations that grew exponentially in their infancy. Everyone rushed into the space to get their piece of the pie. Small and large organizations alike built proprietary gaming and e-cash processing solutions. Now that the years have passed, the industry is seeing organizational consolidations in an effort to maintain their presence. With this consolidation, companies are offering not just casino, poker or bingo products but rather are selling the unification of these products as a sort of entertainment platform. Unfortunately, consolidation is bringing with it islands of applications and databases that cannot efficiently interoperate, if at all. This entertainment platform is implemented under a veil of maintenance and support that is terribly expensive, inflexible and fragile.

CC: How much do legacy systems play into this?

MILLS: I guess we have a lot of what we would deem to be legacy systems. That’s not to say it’s a term I’m comfortable with – it suggests they are old and tired. We have a lot of systems that are 20 or 25 years old, built on older architecture, older ways of dealing with data and older concepts of data management. We weren’t aware of the new technologies, weren’t even aware of the design techniques that we should be looking at to build in quality data integration and we’ve often built not to integrate. Integration wasn’t even only secondary, but not even built into the process.

NESMYANOVICH: It’s interesting that even a young company very quickly creates a legacy. Short-term requirements create a single solution, then you start to integrate. Also, we deal with external partners and partners have all kinds of different systems. It could be AS/400, mainframes and then you have to deal with integration.

MOSER: With the advent of the online gaming industry, systems were pretty much self-contained and implementing a complex transaction seldom reached out of the system domain. The most complex implementation used was an HTTP protocol to a third party used to process a step in a purchase transaction. It melded quite nicely with the design of Web-enabled e-cash processing systems. With more systems in the business domain, many systems need to communicate to implement a complex transaction. Where is the account held? Where are the funds held? How are the accounts funded and how can these common data elements be securely used through the product suite? Remember that all of these systems are two- or three-tier client server architectures geographically scattered over the planet.

CC: Does service-oriented architecture (SOA) figure into your planning? And what are best practices or strategies for adopting this framework?

MILLS: Absolutely, it’s critical. Take a little bit of a journey here. We started reviewing where we were as an organization and enabling our transformation about three years ago. We felt we needed to innovate, and not just in technology, but innovate in a way that we were going to deliver health care transformation. Technology is just an enabler and we needed to work differently, and that is going to create a very unique demand on IT systems. IT systems tend to be very structured. You deliver work from A to B to C, but now, what if we want to go from A to B to D? That creates a demand. The second thing is we realized we needed to spend a lot of time on architecture and architectural concept. That, interestingly enough, matches very much with service-oriented architectures.

NESMYANOVICH: From the start, when we designed our platform, the decision was we must adopt SOA. At the same time, it is an evolutionary process because the philosophy behind SOA is important. Implementation depends on the manufacturers and the standards. The component you build today could be replaced tomorrow if a business function changes, or it needs to be scaled. SOA helps you decide. You do it step-by-step, even if you don’t have the standard.

MOSER: First of all, form a team. Adopting an SOA that envelopes the enterprise begins at the top level and requires strong sponsorship and a dedicated team that is staffed with business and technology professionals. This team is charged with driving the SOA design and implementation as well as educating staff across the organization.

Secondly, establish a foothold standards/governance policy that evolves and is long lived: define the requirements and select a product suite that exceeds those requirements. Thirdly, keep in mind the big picture. Select one simple process that is suitable for integration.

CC: Are you doing Web services and can you provide an example of that?

MILLS: A lot of our systems are moving to Web-based front ends and it’s giving us the opportunity to take a look at how we get data out to it. We have to get our data out in a number of different formats. Internally, we have a lot of client systems and we will probably continue that for a long while. But more and more, people are working from their homes and in patients’ homes, and they will need Web services for that. We’ll give doctors single sign-on, which may not seem like a big issue in many cases, but if you are a doctor, the most important thing is: “Give me a single sign-on of who I am and the patient I am working with.”

NESMYANOVICH: Yes, because the Web is central to all our delivery of services. For example, we have a business intelligence portal built into the database with a Web service integrated in. We use single sign-on, private database access including an executive view of all data, a ‘brand’ view for all brand managers and an external view for public users. It’s important to have seamless integration into the application. People register on the Web site for a promotion and the Web service creates a file. We also use Web services to integrate with e-commerce, with Amazon.com for example.

MOSER: There has been significant effort in the development of Web services as a means for implementing SOA. It is a natural evolution of the model. I see it as the main vehicle in the SOA implementation and it will become the popular standard. The best advantage is the use of XML in the implementation. The natural next step is to extend the standard to include interoperability between organizations.

CC: What do you understand middleware to be and what role do you see it playing in an integrated solution?

MILLS: If my first layer is data management and data transportation – how I manage my data and how I move it about – that’s purely down at the infrastructure level. If I have a patient’s name and address, and knowing who needs it and where it needs to be, then I would look at the top layer and say, “Now I have the outer seams of this. How I am going to view that? How am I going to analyze that?” That’s how we are using Web services, as a delivery mechanism for doing that. Middleware is the layer that says, “Here is how I am going to understand that data and here is how I am going to bring it together.”

NESMYANOVICH: Originally, there used to be a small layer between the database and the application that allowed you to connect multiple data sources. Then when integration software like Microsoft BizTalk appeared, enterprise application integration became a very important part of middleware. In this case, middleware became the heart of multiple application messaging. What we expect from middleware is to simplify integration, instead of creating a point-to-point connection. Middleware is the intelligent part of your architecture.

MOSER: Middleware is the cornerstone of implementing any SOA. Capabilities of middleware vendors vary across a wide spectrum. It’s one of those overused terms and may mean different things to different people. I see an integration layer comprising of a service and a messaging layer. The messaging layer is essentially the middleware in this integration layer definition. In this context, it is a means for transporting information/data. It is used as the “enabler” between the various data stores and systems, and the services that expose an application. Middleware therefore is an e-business enabler.

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