Allowing Solutions to Speak to One Another – The Importance of Interoperability
Companies that use software to streamline daily operations typically depend on more than just one solution. Coordinating a business’s software stack can be a major challenge, especially if it uses tools from various vendors.
Interoperability in software engineering ensures different tools can work together, even if they aren’t designed with specific integrations in mind.
What Is Interoperability?
Interoperability is the ability of digital solutions to communicate with one another to share and process data.
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Technology writers sometimes describe interoperability as allowing solutions to “speak” to one another. Developers can ensure their software integrates with other solutions by using a common design language.
Data Interoperability can guarantee that a solution works with popular software products, niche technologies, and even tools that don’t yet exist.
Why Is Data Interoperability Important?
Interoperability is becoming increasingly valuable across the economy as organizations of all kinds undergo digital transformation and adopt new software.
The average organization currently uses 110 software-as-a-service solutions, up from just eight in 2015. This number may increase as businesses invest more heavily in technology.
Coordinating and orchestrating these solutions can be a significant undertaking. Without interoperability, businesses effectively need to develop entirely new solutions or workflows that allow for communication between different tools in the software stack. In some cases, they may need to create manual processes to exchange data between two solutions.
Interoperability makes integrating these diverse solutions much easier — or even more seamless.
Interoperability does have its drawbacks. Relying on insecure ports and protocols can leave business networks vulnerable to cyberattacks. Companies that adopt a solution that relies on insecure protocols to communicate with other software may weaken their security posture. However, the right cybersecurity practices can generally offset the risks of interoperability.
Interoperability is useful for almost any business, but it’s particularly valuable for organizations that must transfer information between different solutions daily.
For example, electronic health records (EHRs) contain important information on a patient’s health. They are effectively the digital version of a patient’s chart. Interoperable EHRs can share the data with different systems and health care providers.
Health care systems often choose their EHR system based on specific organizational needs — like budget, the number of patients they serve, and the amount of training they can provide their staff. However, not every organization uses the same system.
It may be a major administrative task to securely transfer EHR information from one system to another if two healthcare organizations use non-interoperable networks. As a result, providers may have to wait for essential information on a patient’s health or be left in the dark about previous treatment that a patient received at another facility.
Interoperability ensures that, even if health care systems use different EHR solutions, they can still share information without significant administrative labor.
Interoperability provides similar benefits in manufacturing. Manufacturers are increasingly adopting smart technology, including intelligent sensors that gather real-time information directly from the process. Companies can use this data for various purposes — but gathering and analyzing it from many sources can be challenging.
Interoperable data-collection tools allow manufacturers to bring information into analysis and management solutions more easily. This can provide a single source of truth on operations, allowing staff to review information from across the facility quickly.
Ensuring Interoperability in a Company’s Technology Stack
When developing new solutions — or when updating and revising existing solutions — a few best practices can help a company ensure interoperability where it counts.
Interoperability standards and specifications are tools that developers can deploy to ensure their software is interoperable with other solutions generally, as well as solutions in a particular field or niche.
For example, healthcare software developers may rely on standards like Direct, FHIR, and Cloud Fax to ensure their new solution is interoperable with other healthcare solutions.
Often, these standards will be used with more general, non-software-specific industry standards, like RxNorm, a technology that normalizes the names of clinical drugs.
Similar standards and guidelines can help developers in a wide range of industries — from telecommunications to energy to law — ensure some level of interoperability with technology from other developers.
During the design phase, when technical requirements for a new project are being worked out, developers can investigate the current state of standards for their industry, niche, or particular product use case. Often, there are already standards — or similar interoperability resources — developers can take advantage of to ensure their product’s interoperability with popular or important solutions.
How Data Interoperability May Become More Important
Businesses will adopt new solutions and software as digital transformation continues. However, solutions that can’t communicate with each other may introduce new administrative burdens.
Interoperability in software engineering helps ensure data can be easily exchanged across a business’s technology stack. Interoperable software also allows companies to coordinate with partners that may not necessarily use the same solutions. This increases productivity and keeps operations running smoothly.