Perceptions of Interoperability
By Dr Andy Hopkirk, Head of Projects & Programmes at the National Computing Centre
Interoperability is a recurring theme in debates about how to get cheaper, more efficient and future proofed IT systems - outcomes of particular interest to all NCC members.
Both proprietary and open source software suppliers say they have made, and are continuing to make, significant moves towards utilising and supporting the development of open standards and delivering ever more interoperable systems; but is this what is actually perceived on the ground?
In August - December 2009, NCC surveyed members and consultants to members, seeking information about their perceptions of interoperability requirements and suppliers’ capabilities in the marketplace today.
The typical survey respondent is dealing with a platform-supplier-application mix that does not make interoperability easy. Only 25% of respondents have a very hetero or very homogeneous IT environment today and approximately equal numbers were presently tending towards either position!
There are different kinds of interoperability besides the obvious one of technical interoperability. Survey respondents rated all three of technical, semantic and organisational interoperability as being of major significance to them. Interestingly, they broadly placed the same weight on each, albeit with a small preference for organisational interoperability as the ‘most major’. A number made additional comments about the importance of data and data exchange standards as interoperability enablers which classify as either technical or semantic interoperability matters.
Only 16% of respondents said that the number of interoperability issues affecting them is declining as time passes. A small majority of the remaining 84% said that there are more issues as time passes compared to simply staying more or less the same.
Worryingly, 11% said interoperability issues are preventing their doing business to some considerable degree and a further 64% shared that concern to some degree.
So how interoperable do a company’s internal and external facing business systems need to be? Only 3% said that interoperability is not at all important to their business systems. 84% said that internal interoperability is critically or significantly important and 61% rated external interoperability as critically or significantly important. Internal interoperability is the main issue of concern.
Given high levels of both concern and significance, can we narrow down the problem space?
Respondents said that they generally don’t have problems with new hardware but they do with new software. When asked if it’s the case that a higher level of technical interoperability will enable the required or desired benefits, only 6% of respondents said they were neutral on this question and 69% said it would. Of the minority who disagreed with the proposition, more did so strongly than merely tended to disagree, indicating a polarisation of opinion on that side of neutral.
What could suppliers do differently tomorrow that would help? When presented with five possible supplier actions, respondents’ replies suggest that (i) standards compliance in the broadest sense, (ii) designing for interoperability and (iii) collaboration with solutions users would be the winning strategy for suppliers to adopt.
Of the two remaining suggestions, collaborating with other suppliers’ developers was better received than providing access to software source code, i.e. access to source code was the lowest rated action. When asked which approach between Free/Open Source .v. Proprietary delivers the more interoperable solutions, a majority, 59%, said that either approach is equally likely to. The remainder were approximately evenly split.
Interoperability continues to be a significant issue for the NCC’s end user community.
Interoperability issues are preventing 11% doing business to ‘some considerable degree’ and a further 64% to ‘some degree’, figures that are testament a poor state of affairs.
The issues are not just technical: organisational, semantic and technical interoperability dimensions were all rated ‘major’.
Looking forwards, 69% said that improved technical interoperability would be expected to bring business and or functional benefits and only one supplier was rated ‘Low’ in terms of the interoperability of their products with those of other suppliers.
But suppliers can do more. Our signal is that the winning supplier strategy is standards compliance + designing for interoperability + collaboration with solutions users. Those who ‘walk that walk’ will prosper.