vertical integration

Applications have been pursuing operational efficiency through vertical integration for years. This is generally understood to mean assembling infrastructure (machine and operating system) with platform components (database, middleware) and application components into an engineered system that is pre-integrated and optimized to work together.

Now, the evolution to cloud services is following the same pattern. IaaS is integrated into PaaS. IaaS and PaaS are integrated with application components to deliver SaaS. However, just as we see in on-premise enterprise information systems, applications do not operate in silos. They are integrated by business processes, and they must collaborate to enforce business policies across business functions and organizations.

Marketing is deeply interwoven with sales. Product configuration, pricing, and quotation are tied to order capture and fulfillment. Fulfillment involves inventory, shipping, provisioning, billing, and financial accounting. Customer service is linked with various service assurance components, billing care, and also quote and order capture. All components need views of accounts, assets (products and services subscribed to), agreements, contracts, and warranties. Service usage and demand all feed analytics to drive marketing campaigns that generate more sales. What a tangled web.

What is clear from this picture is that vertical integration does not end with infrastructure, platform, and a software application. Applications contribute components that combine with business processes and business policies to construct higher level applications. This may continue for many layers of integration according to the self-similar paradigm.

The evolution to cloud should recognize the need for integration of SaaS components with business processes and business policies. However, it does not appear as though cloud services have anticipated the need for vertical integration to continue in layers. To construct assemblies, the platform should provide a means of defining such assemblies, so that they can be replicated by packaging and deploying them on infrastructure at various scales. The platform should provide a consistent programming and configuration model for extending and customizing applications in ways that are natural to being reapplied layer by layer.

Vertical integration is not an elegantly solved problem for on-premise applications. On-premise application integration is notoriously complex due to heterogeneity and vastly inconsistent interfaces and programming models. One component’s notion of customer is another’s notion of party. Two components with notions of customer do not agree on its schema and semantics. A product to one component is an offer to another. System integration projects routinely cost five to ten times the software license cost of the application components, because of the difficulty of overcoming impedance mismatches, gaps in functional capabilities, duct tape, and bubblegum.

Examining today’s cloud platforms and the applications built upon them, it is looking like we have not learned much from our past mistakes. We are faced with the same costly and clunky integration nightmare with no breakthrough in sight.

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