Bridging the Two Worlds

April 27, 2015

I know this isn't the first time Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" is mentioned in IT related communications.More than 30 years ago, Steve Jobs quoted the song when he was unveiling the Macintosh for the first time. However, when I was reading this great article in TechCrunch, I couldn't help myself. Dylan said:

Come gather 'round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You'll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you

Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'

Or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin'.

Even though Jobs did a great job with changing the way the tools (well, basically that's what computers or phones are) are understood, this TechCrunch article did put it well: we are now facing a change in overall people behavior, and there is a challenge that established parties in supply chain simply must cope with. 

The consumer is now the king. The customer wants to understand how the process proceeds; if he can't afford the goods he is buying, he wants to apply credit for his purchase, and to instantly know whether he will get the credit. Once he has bought the goods - and there is an increasing possibility he is buying them online - he wants to know the delivery status. And all of this information should be easily accessible, from a single point. If the customer doesn't get the user experience he wants, he will change the merchant.

This is a challenge for the current merchants, financial organizations, and logistics providers. Not many organizations have the possibility to create a full end-to-end service. Instead, they need to rely on other parties - merchants, financial organizations and logistics providers must work together in order to provide the end user the experience he or she wants. As TechCrunch suggests, the most successful companies are exactly in this business - combining all the parties together.

There are two parties in this equation that have been around for ages - possibly hundreds of years. Banks and logistics providers have done their job for ages, providing services for their local customers. However, in the current, global environment, they cannot rely on the customers that are close - their customer may be located on the other side of the globe. 

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin'

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin'.

Banks and posts have been around for quite a while and their internal structure has been developed and optimized for their local customers. They have invested a lot in their operations, and they are having challenges in adapting to the new era. However, they still have one important asset: the local presence itself. For instance, local postal operators own the "doors" - they have been delivering items to their customers as long as they have been around, and they know how to do this cost-efficiently. An asset that the modern players in the global e-commerce arena are more than willing to utilize.

One of the biggest obstacles today is the IT. As the end customer wants rapid, near-real-time information about his financial status, or the status of his goods traveling around the world, the IT infrastructure of financial or postal organizations is not necessarily up to the task. Their systems have been built on "old world" requirements, and typically based on a batch-based operations. Things are processed in batches, maybe once an hour or once a day - anyways, way too infrequently for the end customer. If you want to know whether your loan application has been processed, or if you are waiting for a delivery while waiting at home, almost late from an important meeting, you cannot afford the hours or days.

Here comes the integration part. For these different players in the modern, global supply chain, there are always multiple organizations involved. These organizations need to exchange the information in a way that the end-customer is server timely. This means that banks, logistics providers, etc. need to interact with the interface that the end-customer is using - as TechCrunch states, this interface is no longer today in the hands of the parties that do most of the job in the supply chain.

Whether that interface is owned by Alibaba, Uber, or someone else, some of the parties need to work in "traditional", batch-based manner, because the events-based IT infrastructure just isn't there. On the other end, some modern parts of the overall architecture are built to understand the customers' real-time requirements.

Integration - whether between on-premise applications or between organizations - is quite often understood simply as protocol and content level transformations. From EDI over SFTP into XML over REST, or something similar. However, this is not the full truth. Integration has to cope with the integration of the two worlds - batch-based and real-time. Protocol and message contents are technical details, but the third level of integration comes when two completely different frequencies of information exchanges are combined. Integration must cope with both. Whenever a message from the "new world" is received, integration may need to wait for some more messages and batch them together before the "old world" can receive the batch. Or if the "old world" is able to deliver status updates only once a day, the integration needs to be able to cache them and provide the latest correct information to the "new world" as soon as the end customer requires that information.

To cite another famous singer-songwriter Paul Simon, iPaaS can act as a "Bridge over Troubled Water". Both worlds can still utilize the infrastructure they have built on, and the integration as a service matches the frequencies of these two worlds, batching whenever it is required, or caching the information to be available for the quick queries. 

As Simon says, "When times get rough -- And friends just can't be found -- Like a bridge over troubled water -- I will lay me down". In a modern supply chain, you just need to find your friends - and communicate with them.

Bridging the two worlds

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