Interoperability: Beyond the Buzzword

“Interoperability” is a major selling point for many software providers these days, but on its own this mouthful of a word (in-ter-op-er-a-bil-i-ty) isn’t actually all that meaningful. There are several types of interoperability, each of which comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. It is critical, therefore, to understand each type and be able to evaluate its importance to your application. This post highlights three main types of interoperability, providing an introduction to a series of upcoming posts that will dive deep into the meaning and implications of each one individually.

Syntactic interoperability is the most basic type of interoperability, but also the foundation on which other types are built (more on that in a bit). Syntactic interoperability refers to the ability of two (or more) systems to communicate with one another using a common format or protocol. Imagine two humans trying to have a conversation, one of whom prefers phone calls (audio format) while the other prefers emails (text format); in order to connect with one another they will need to agree on a common protocol. In much the same way, a system that produces data in JSON format will be unable to communicate with a system that only understands data in XML format. At Foreseer we build our systems with an eye toward supporting as many protocols and data formats as possible, thereby maintaining flexibility and enabling our clients to plug-and-play their existing systems without the need for conversion layers.

Semantic interoperability builds on the communication established by syntactic interoperability and describes the ability of multiple systems to interpret the information they exchange in an identical manner. Framing things once again in terms of human conversation, we can think of the encrypted letters by which sensitive information would be sent in times of war: both sender and recipient are employing a common transmission protocol (syntactic interoperability), but without the code to decrypt the message the recipient would be unable to interpret the meaning of the letter. Similarly, two systems that have successfully established communication via XML will still be unable to achieve a meaningful information exchange if they lack a common definition of the tags that structure the data. In order to establish a shared interpretation of the data, the sender may provide a vocabulary — commonly referred to as metadata — bundled along with the data itself; using this metadata, the recipient can assign meaning to each element of the data and carry that information forward to produce an appropriate result. Foreseer is capable of sending and receiving metadata in any number of forms, be it a schema definition, mapping file, or anything in between. Our clients can be confident that any data sent to or received from Foreseer will be done so unambiguously.

Cross-domain interoperability is exactly what it sounds like — the ability of a system to interact with other systems across a wide variety of subject domains. This is what businesses are talking about when they use the ultimate buzzword: “synergy”. If you’ve ever worked at a large corporation, chances are you’ve been involved in an effort to get departments across the firm to adopt a standard data framework or use a common application. More often than not these efforts fail, and there’s a reason for that — cross-domain interoperability is really hard! Every department has its own set of specialized requirements, and building a generalized framework with the flexibility to seamlessly incorporate added customizations is easier said than done. With Foreseer, however, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Our powerful core models have already been applied in a wide variety of domains and are available to plug-and-play out of the box; once you’re up-and-running, choose from our additional domain-specific models or seamlessly provide your own to run alongside or in place of the core logic.

Hopefully you now feel better equipped to ask some follow-up questions the next time you’re on the receiving end of a software pitch that makes vague references to “interoperability”. Maybe they’re being vague because there’s not much there there, or maybe they’re just selling themselves short — the only way to know for sure is to ask! Now, if you really want to become an SME, keep checking back here over the coming weeks for additional posts in this series.