I grew up with the first "Star Trek" and remember thinking how cool it would be to have a universal translator like they did so you'd never have to learn another language. I wasn't doing that well in Spanish. In tech, we are constantly faced with trying to get systems to talk to each other. Systems that weren't designed around a common communications standard and may exist on vastly different technologies that are decades apart in terms of when they were brought to market and when they were highly customized. This problem has become particularly problematic due to the massive amount of consolidation that most markets are going through coupled with the equally massive budget constraints IT is under.
This came to mind last week when I was being briefed on Dell's recent acquisition Boomi. I was struggling with what it was, exactly, that Boomi did when it came to me: It is kind of like a cloud-based universal translator for systems that need to work in concert, but clearly weren't designed to do so.
Let me explain.
Collective Airline Frequent Flier Program
It was the case study that involved a collective airline frequent flier program that turned the light bulb on for me. If you don't know what a collective frequent flier program is, you likely don't fly that much, so let me explain. Those of us who travel a lot get a perk that we try not to discuss too much for fear that someone will take it away. It is called airline miles and these can be traded for free trips so that we can afford to go on vacation. Granted, after sitting in a plane for most of a month I often think that getting on another plane isn't as attractive as just staying home, but let's set that random thought aside for the moment.
The issue often is that the place you want to go isn't covered by the airline you have been flying with and collectives solve this problem. The case was a collection of around 14 airlines ranging from a large U.S. airline to more obscure airlines like those that fly to small countries allowing you to travel where you want to go. To get this system to work, over 13 airline frequent-travel programs have to talk to each other so that an exchange can take place and folks can go where they want, and the airlines aren't ripped off by people using the same miles, or fraudulent miles, to go on trips.
Every time a new airline was added to this group initially, interfaces had to be hard coded to a large number of other airlines that each had to then add a hard-coded interface to the airline being added. Recognizing that this had to work across a number of different countries in 10 time zones probably turned the IT manager handling the alliance project into quivering jelly. Not to mention that if any one of these airlines significantly changed its system, all of the airlines had to rewrite some or all of these hard-coded interfaces, which is not exactly easy to budget.
Boomi was presented as the solution and the large number of interfaces became one and the Boomi Conversion Hub called an AtomSphere currently works to handle the integration. Now, a new member only has to write for Boomi and if there is a change, the cost of that change is borne by the organization undergoing it alone.
AtomSphere is kind of like a universal translator with one clear difference: The universal translator is automatic-you still have to code the interface between the system and the central hub. However, once done, the translation appears to be a manageable object that can be reused and shared if you so wish. There is a community that surrounds Boomi where companies share and exchange connectors across both public and private entities. The result is a solution that can integrate two or more SaaS or on-premise technologies, or a SaaS technology and an on-premise technology operating either inside or outside of the firewall. The resulting architecture is designed to be distributed with each hub dedicated to the systems it is translating so there is no single point of failure, and these hubs are designed to be centrally monitored and controlled for load balancing, assuring availability, and to assist with disaster recovery. This last bit is something that a lot of us are dealing in the aftermath of Japan's tsunami and the tornados in the U.S.
Wrapping up: The New Dell
Dell's most daunting task is to get potential buyers to look at it as more than just a PC company. Acquisitions like Boomi are increasingly held up as examples of Dell's desire to be seen as more of a solutions company and the acquisition goes a long way towards accomplishing that goal. I believe we are slowly seeing a new Dell emerge, one that is far more focused on the back office than it is on the desktop, and one that has realized that the money is in getting things to work together and not in creating more problematic proprietary systems.
Now if someone would just have a long chat with Oracle in this regard