Buying equipment from different suppliers can be risky unless you get an expert to put it together.
Fitting together a computer system has never been as easy as building a castle with Lego. Despite so-called open systems and huge efforts at computer standardisation, getting pieces of equipment from different manufacturers to work together can still be a nightmare.
The problems are even worse when the system spans several organisations in different countries. This was the challenge facing the rail companies of the UK, Belgium and France in putting together the Channel Tunnel rail passenger service. It was a classic case for the systems integrator.
According to Bob Broadbent, of ICL Enterprises, who is running the systems integration project for the Channel Tunnel Departure Control System (DCS), systems integration offers all the potential benefits with minimal risk. 'It means having a single contract with one supplier - however complex your computer installation and whatever hardware, software, or specialist components are required.'
The systems integrator may in turn have several deals with suppliers and subcontractors, but the customer gets a fixed price and a specific deadline. If these undertakings are not met, the customer can sue, whereas if the system were implemented by an in-house member of staff, all the company can do is give the employee the sack.
Systems integration is now one of the IT industry's biggest growth sectors, with demand forecast to rise at 18% a year, according to IDC, the market research company. The boom is partly due to increasingly complex computers and telecoms networks. Organisations are finding it more and more difficult to hire and retain enough technically skilled staff. And when things go wrong, the outcome can be disastrous - as vividly demonstrated by the scrapping in March this year of Taurus, the Stock Exchange's automated settlements system, at an estimated cost of more than £400 million.
Systems integration offers a way to avoid such dangers and minimise risk, says Graham Paine, director of complex systems organisation at Unisys. 'The business manager tells us the problem he faces and we translate it into an IT solution at a guaranteed price and on a timescale that gives him the payback he wants. We take the risk and put our credibility on the line while the client maintains control.' Systems integration contracts can also improve cash flow, because customers do not generally pay until the system is installed and working.
The Channel Tunnel's £4 million DCS, due for delivery early next year, involves integrating hardware supplied by ICL in the UK, Digital Equipment in Belgium and IBM in France. Dassault Automatismes of France is providing the automatic check-in 'gates'. Much of the software is being written by British Rail's software division. 'We thought it was best to let the experts 80e handle that side of it,' says Broadbent. Less than 5% of the hardware is ICL's own.
Systems integration is a highly attractive business for suppliers, who have seen their margins in hardware and software heavily eroded in the past few years. 'There are two approaches that IT companies can take in the present situation,' says Paine. 'They can either be good at supplying a specific component, such as a powerful work-station, or they can be a systems integrator.' Most major computer companies have taken the latter approach.
In one sense, systems integration is not new. It is simply another word for what used to be called project management. But now it tends to cover many more activities, from putting 13-amp sockets on the wall to building new computer rooms. The range and complexity of contemporary computers also means that it requires highly skilled installers, although there is often less software development work than before. Keith Gathergood, managing director of Sema Group Systems, says: 'In the past, all major systems included a substantial amount of bespoke software.' Now it is more like pushing around a supermarket trolley and picking bits off the shelf. 'The skill is in selecting the right components, the software to glue it all together, and testing the system.'
Some systems integrators admit to being biased towards their own products. But most say that they would have no credibility unless they were prepared to go out and look for the best available technology to accomplish a specific task. As Paine puts it: 'Instead of offering solutions that are right for Unisys, we'll offer ones that are right for the customer, including supplying boxes built by our rivals.'
Users, for their part, need to be clear about their requirements. One common problem is the gulf between management and 'shopfloor', says Sema's Gathergood. 'Senior management has a vision of what it is trying to achieve. But you can usually guarantee that this is not the same as what the shopfloor users want. The result is that you get into a lengthy ping-pong, which causes prevarication and delay for the systems integrator.' Users who wish to avoid confrontation with systems integrators should ensure that they make staff available for regular meetings, sign off documents within the agreed time, and clearly identify which individuals are authorised to make changes.
All projects require changes during their lifetime: laws change, new products become available, and market conditions fluctuate. It is essential, therefore, to establish change control procedures from the outset. Users often want to add a lot of fancy 'gold-plated' extras halfway through, says Paine. 'Lots of features may be nice to have, but they are not all necessary. Changes must be justified and kept to a minimum.' Training courses and awareness programmes can help ensure that employees contribute to making the system a success.
Systems integrators warn potential customers against pushing too hard on prices, especially during economic recession, when some suppliers may be tempted to take on contracts at high risk.
Paine says: 'Customers fool themselves into thinking that they are driving a really good bargain but it is a terrible bargain, especially if they have tried to fix a price before the contract has been fully specified, when it is not yet possible to see what is required. This is one reason why there is quite a lot of customer dissatisfaction with systems integration.'
But it is not essential to hire an independent systems integrator to get the job done. Large organisations, and those with extensive IT expertise, may wish to do it in-house. Such was the position two years ago at Lucas Industries, the engineering and automotive components group.
he company had been through a decade of heavy decentralisation and had made a number of acquisitions creating a plethora of different computer systems. In the words of Colin Hayward, manager of information system design at Lucas Engineering and Systems, 'You name it, we've got one of them somewhere in the group.'
Lucas decided to harmonise its core business activities. 'We are now trying to identify where there is synergy in doing things in a common way across the group. Computer integration is a key part of the process,' says Hayward. Take product development, for example. At present a new development, such as a diesel fuel pump, may involve design input from several geographically dispersed companies in the group. 'If we had the right software, they could share drawings and make changes from separate companies during the design process.
'As a manufacturing engineering company, we have to be flexible to meet different market requirements. In future, we might decide to group our businesses differently. We didn't want IT to be an inhibitor to this process.'
But how do you set about integration when there is such a diversity of equipment across the world? 'There were not enough international standards to cover our inventory of hardware and software installed across the world,' says Hayward. The answer Lucas hit upon was to define 'club rules' about favoured computer systems based on established standards where available, and proprietary or de facto standards elsewhere. It also recommended applications software from high-quality vendors.
'The club rules are designed for an evolutionary migration towards integration and give people a basis on which to make their purchasing decisions,' Hayward says.
There is no imperative. 'It is all about influence and coercion.' The club rules also help to implement best practice throughout the group for activities such as the evaluation of hardware or software. It's a pragmatic approach to standardisation. Like the other systems integrators, Hayward says his biggest problem is getting a high level of commitment and enthusiasm from staff.
Ultimately, when open systems have extended their scope across all computer and communications equipment, the systems integration function may be redundant. But there is no sign of this in the foreseeable future because of the nature of technological development.
It will be a long time before we get real mix and match systems, says Broadbent. 'The pace of change means that technologies are never standard when first introduced. Most manufacturers try to anticipate what they think will be the standard, but it is a process of guesswork.'
Piecing together the components of a technically complex system may one day become so easy that users can wheel their own trolley round the supermarket. Until then, the specialist catering companies of the IT world will still be called in for the really important occasions.