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Keeping the U.S. Computer Industry Competitive: System Integration Executive Summary Systems integration offers an enormous opportunity for U.S. firms to capitalize on their strengths in such areas as complex software, networking, and management. Although no single definition of systems integration is complete, it can be broadly considered as the "wiring" together, via hardware and frequently very complex software, of the often already existing islands of computer applications into a coordinated enterprise-wide distributed network system. As this formulation suggests, the fundamental challenges raised by systems integration are those associated with building large systems from heterogeneous components. There is a growing demand for such systems, and a growing need to overcome the vexing challenges inherent in their design and development. At a January 1991 colloquium organized by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council, industry leaders, university researchers, and government policymakers discussed how systems integration is taking shape today and why it is expected to define the characteristics of computerization for decades to come. Systems integration can be viewed as a culmination of computing and communications research done to date. To fulfill the promise of systems integration, a wide range of component technologies—including databases, operating systems, architectures, networks, security mechanisms, human interfaces, artificial intelligence, and communications—must work together. Expertise about the many domains in which systems integration is applied (finance, retail, transportation, and so on) must also be invoked. Thus an interdisciplinary approach is essential to successful systems integration, as are complementary and coordinated research and development efforts in
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Keeping the U.S. Computer Industry Competitive: System Integration industry, academia, and government. Toward both ends, colloquium participants urged that universities pay more attention to systems integration in devising educational and research programs in computing and communications. The technological challenges encompassed in systems integration are formidable, but for the moment they play to U.S. strengths. For example, much of systems integration depends on the development of sophisticated and often highly specialized software—a difficult process but one in which the United States is preeminent. Other key abilities essential to successful systems integration, also abilities in which the United States excels, include creative problem solving and management of complex, often one-of-a-kind processes. One area in which the U.S. record is mixed is that of standards setting. The continued development of systems integration as an industry depends fundamentally on the compatibility of component technologies. Therefore standards of interoperability are indispensable. Colloquium participants were uniform in urging that more attention be paid to the standards-making process—by government as well as by industry. Systems integration involves more than technology: its highest-order task is integrating people—helping them assimilate information, create, collaborate, and, in sum, work more productively. While networks of machines and devices are the ostensible manifestations of the trend toward distributed computing and communications, the most significant connections, according to colloquium participants, are those between people and organizational units using linked devices. For this reason, systems integration technology, and in particular the successful building and operation of networked computer applications, is considered key to the emergence of an information infrastructure for the nation (and the world). Colloquium participants expressed both hope and concern for the anticipated information infrastructure. The quality of that infrastructure, as well as its timely development, hinges on leadership and vision; this was a principal area of agreement among participants. It also hinges on constructive collaboration among industry, government, and academia. The federal High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program was recognized by participants as a key step toward developing this infrastructure and as a valuable mechanism for fostering interactions among government, industry, and academia. Other federal projects, including systems modernization at government agencies, could also serve to demonstrate applications of systems integration and options for cross-sectoral collaboration. The United States faces a peculiar challenge in the evolution of its computing, telecommunications, and broadcast media infrastructure. The quality and availability of U.S. telephone service, entertainment, and business computing are unparalleled. But because it was the first country to embrace
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Keeping the U.S. Computer Industry Competitive: System Integration many of these new technologies, the United States must now build on a rapidly aging (by the standards of information technology development today) foundation. The huge installed technology base is both an engine for current activities and a constraint on the development and implementation of new technologies; obtaining the benefit of the new with minimal disruption to ongoing activities that depend on the old is no small challenge. One important factor in the evolution of information infrastructure is the body of U.S. telecommunications regulations. Colloquium participants observed that those regulations may not have kept pace with changing technologies and industry boundaries. In particular, the proliferation of digital technology into communications results in an effective convergence of computing, communications, and entertainment (programming) industries that raises new questions about fairness, competitive conduct, and other concerns long addressed through telecommunications regulations. As the predominantly digital technologies essential for systems integration continue to mature, the focus of activity in systems integration may shift from creating a solution to a problem to engineering that solution. This change in focus may allow foreign competitors who excel in engineering and implementation but not necessarily in devising innovative solutions an opportunity to enter the systems integration market. U.S. systems integration firms thus should not be content with being first to market, nor sanguine in their belief in the "American" nature of the industry. U.S. high-technology industries are rife with instances in which American leadership was supplanted by superior production from abroad. Moreover, colloquium participants observed that foreign countries, most notably Japan and countries in Western Europe, have been developing their information infrastructures with greater levels of determination and comprehensiveness than those exhibited thus far in the United States. To date, systems integration has been a success story. It is time that government, industry, and academia collectively acknowledge the value of systems integration and act to assure the ongoing vitality and competitiveness of U.S. technical and commercial activities in systems integration.
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