A version of this article originally appeared in Information Management (registration required).
Mixing and matching whatever technologies are necessary to build the best possible system, or to satisfy the end user, is called technology agnosticism. Rather than insisting on the purity of using a single platform or technology, the technology-agnostic developer will select parts of a solution from a wide array of platforms and other technologies with the aim of developing the best or most suitable solution.
With the proliferation of new languages and platforms, the ability to be technology-agnostic has evolved from a “nice to have” to a “need to have” — and developers face this reality daily. Consider the following scenario. A developer is working on a project that’s implemented in .NET. At some point, the developer realizes that a key piece of functionality is either already implemented in a best-of-breed Java package or the organization has already invested in a Java package that serves the purpose. Does the developer resolve the problem by throwing away the Java package and purchasing or implementing the functionality in .NET, or by throwing away everything done in .NET and re-implementing the system in Java just to make use of this piece of functionality? Hopefully, he or she would use both the new .NET application and the existing Java package, as effort and money have already been invested in each, and presumably each technology was chosen because it was most suitable for its task.
This was exactly the problem faced by a software provider of custom solutions. The company had developed a system in .NET for managing the intellectual property of pharmaceutical, biotech, and chemical companies. However, a customer of theirs required that the encryption functionality be implemented using a Java package that was already adopted throughout the end user’s company. Rather than insisting that the end user adopt .NET encryption functionality, or re-implementing their system in Java to match the end user’s encryption package, the company made sure that its .NET product worked with the end user’s Java package (using an interoperability solution).
Technology Agnosticism, Developer Fatigue and Creating the Best Possible Solution
Technology agnosticism can also paradoxically help to prevent developer fatigue because it allows a developer to assemble a solution mostly from familiar technologies, and limit the components based on unfamiliar and emerging technologies to those where the contributions of the new technologies are crucial to the success of the project. In such cases, the developer can strictly limit use of the new and unfamiliar technology to where it is truly needed, and use familiar and proven technologies elsewhere.
Joe Ryan recently suggested that one should be technology-agnostic in every development project, and that not being technology-agnostic will unnecessarily narrow your options when searching for the best solution to a problem. This makes sense: Developers should not be constrained by the particular underlying technologies when looking for the best solution. If one part of a project is best implemented in .NET and another part is best implemented in Java, go ahead and do it that way, and use an interoperability solution to help make it work.
In Ryan’s article, developers choose to be technology-agnostic and build their solutions from multiple technologies because it leads to the best solution. In many other cases, however, developers have no choice; they may be forced to be technology-agnostic for either business or technical reasons.
How Interoperability Tools Can Help
Whether by force or choice, being technology-agnostic clearly introduces the need for the mish-mash of technologies to get along. Interoperability tools and solutions can help here. Following are some examples:
Customer requirements: The example at the beginning of this article is one instance where a developer may be forced to be technology-agnostic because their customer requires that part of the solution use a technology different from the one that the developer might have ordinarily chosen. A company specializing in document imaging, data capture, and payment processing experienced a similar problem when it needed to integrate its .NET-based document processing system into a customer’s existing Java-based pharmacy benefits management system. As in the initial example, the company was able to use an interoperability solution to accommodate this requirement and support a solution that incorporated both Java and .NET.
Mergers and acquisitions: Many companies have been a situation where they’ve either acquired a business unit or a product that was based on Java, while they themselves were .NET-centric, or vice versa. While the initial impulse might be to rewrite the newly acquired software for the company’s usual platform, such an effort is expensive, time-consuming, potentially error-prone, and a waste of resources. These customers were able to easily and efficiently integrate the systems using an interoperability solution.
Migration scenarios: In one particularly interesting scenario, a provider of process control solutions for semiconductor manufacturers used technology agnosticism as a strategy to evolve and migrate a system over time. The company had a large in-house-developed application that was developed in Java. After a number of years in production, the company decided that the application should be migrated to .NET. Rather than rewrite the whole thing at once, a process that could take years, they were able to rewrite smaller layers of the application for the new platform, and use an interoperability solution to bridge between the newly rewritten layers and the legacy portions of the application. As more layers were rewritten, the cross-platform bridge was progressively moved; the process will be continued until the entire application has been rewritten. During this extended process, the evolving application could be tested and kept in production, so that functionality was never lost. The customer estimates that it saved $1.6 million by taking this approach, so technology agnosticism can save money, too.
A vendor changes its technology: Sometimes, you may have happily settled on a single platform for your product, but then one of your vendors makes the fateful decision to change their platform. Do you follow suit, or do you stay with your existing technology? One company — a software provider that helps customers gain better insight into their business intelligence applications — faced this exact problem when SAP’s Business Objects, upon which the company’s product was partly based, converted to Java. The company’s.NET-based product was effectively disrupted with the change, but rather than completely convert their product to Java, they kept it in .NET and reimplemented the integration with Business Objects by using an interoperability tool, saving time and expense compared to completely reimplementing everything in Java.
Interoperability with trading partners: Even when a company has a uniform, enterprise-wide technology policy, or has otherwise successfully solved their in-house integration issues, there’s the problem of integration with their trading partners’ software, where there’s clearly no guarantee that their systems will be compatible with yours. While REST and other web-based services are one way to support this sort of interoperability, such services may have insufficient throughput, or expose insufficiently detailed functionality. It may also be the case that your partners’ systems may not be web-enabled. In such cases, interoperability tools can easily be used to implement a business-to-business solution, when one trading partner is using .NET and the other one is using Java.
Non-uniform technology policies: Even in the absence of acquisitions, different divisions of a company may have centered around different platforms for their IT. In such cases, engineers attempting to integrate these different technology silos may be forced to bridge the gap – in this case, between Java and .NET – using interoperability tools.
Multi-targeted APIs: A software vendor may have a product targeted for a particular platform, with APIs targeted to that platform; for example, a .NET application with .NET APIs, or a Java application with Java APIs. Interoperability solutions can be used to quickly create a new API targeted to the other platform, so that they can expand their customer base to include those that develop applications using a different platform from that on which the original application was implemented. One prominent example of such a strategy is Adobe, which decided to take its Java-based ColdFusion product and add the ability to call .NET binaries from ColdFusion programs. Interoperability tools were used to make this happen, and the resulting new feature was well-received by Adobe’s customer community.
A DeveloperTech article suggested that being technology-agnostic during the development process allows the developer to choose the best overall solution regardless of underlying technology platforms. While this is undeniable, there have also been many situations where, even when companies have thought they’ve settled on a single technology or platform, they have been forced to be technology-agnostic later on — long after all the original technology decisions were made. In the scenarios presented here, both business and technical circumstances have forced companies to broaden their technology base and become technology-agnostic further down the road. Interoperability solutions can help by supporting evolving technology needs.
Do you have a cross-platform interoperability scenario that we didn’t cover in this article? If so, let us know.