The difference between integration and interoperability

Jeremy Kimber

Two words are seemingly on the tip of every manufacturer's tongue; integration and interoperability, and often used interchangeably. Jeremy Kimber, Commercial Operational Marketing Leader EMEA at Honeywell Security Group explains the difference between the two terms, and why it matters.
As IP adoption continues to increase in the physical security space, an important misconception has started to sneak into common parlance; the synonymous use of the term interoperability with integration. This misconception is based on the understandable assumption amongst security professionals that when it comes to IP-based technology, in contrast to analogue, 'everything talks' and any product can connect with another. Therefore, in the age of IP, interoperability and integration are essentially thought of as one and the same. The truth however, is that integration and interoperability are two different terms that describe two different things, and to use them interchangeably can cause customers serious problems

Integration is arguably the 'truest' way that a system works together. Often best understood in the context of PC software, an integrated solution is one that not only allows a series of products to talk to each other in their current state, but also provides backwards and forwards compatibility with future versions of each product. In contrast, interoperability reflects a more immediate form of functionality between different products. Whilst a set of interoperable systems will work together in harmony in their existing state, future upgrades, developments or improvements to any of the products can cause interoperability to cease. Put simply, interoperable systems work together now, integrated systems work together full stop.

Although manufacturers everywhere are striving to offer integrated solutions, an overly liberal use of the term has bred confusion. For example the practice of manufacturers making interfaces and SDKs (software development kits) available to third parties is described as supporting product integration, however, in reality this is not the case. A common example is when a product is working with a third party product via a SDK. If the product is updated by the manufacturer, they will normally provide the third party with an updated SDK to allow them to adapt their own offering to ensure it continues to work in synch. However, in spite of the SDK allowing this to take place, the speed with which the third party actually executes the upgrade can sometimes represent a time lapse of several months or more. This is partly due to technical reasons and partly because it may require a new business case to be made to support the cost of doing the work. For that period the products are incompatible. This is an important difference between an interoperable system and one that is integrated.

Open standards-based interfaces are also an important component of the interoperability and integration issue. For many in the industry, compliance with PSIA and Onvif, which have been set up as standards to which manufacturers develop integration, means a product can make up part of an 'integrated' system. However whilst this is true to a point, systems that comply to such interfaces are still restrictive in their functionality, often only providing guaranteed access to a basic, rather than a complete, feature set. Honeywell is a supporter and member of Onvif and PSIA, however for full integration that provides compatibility of all functionality across a range of products, PSIA and Onvif compatible systems do not necessarily provide instant integration, rather they promote interoperability within IP-based security systems.

For large to midsized deployments and government or critical infrastructure sites, the difference between integration and interoperability is particularly important. Larger sites are more likely to own and operate security solutions incorporating a number of different products that need to work together.

Whilst solutions that are fully integrated can sit comfortably on one company server, interoperable solutions often sit across multiple servers. This can make managing the system a complex operation for security or IT personnel. In addition, unlike integrated systems, interoperable solutions will often be covered by multiple maintenance and support contracts, making the upkeep of the system a complicated task. It is essential that security professionals working in these kinds of organisations understand exactly what they are buying, and the impact it will have on the employees responsible for its operation and maintenance.

There is an important place for both interoperability and integration within the security industry. As companies of all sizes increasingly seek products that can work in cooperation, manufacturers are driving innovation designed to deliver an effective solution to their security challenges. Equally, industry groups are promoting interoperability and setting out the standards that will govern it in the future. As we move forwards, our customers are best served by a clear understanding of the benefits and limitations of both approaches.

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