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Keeping the U.S. Computer Industry Competitive: System Integration
SYSTEMS AS COMPONENTS
"What people thought of as a system just a few years ago is a small component in what people are thinking of as systems today," said Michael Taylor, central systems engineering manager at the Digital Equipment Corp. "We all recognize that one person's system is another person's component."
This evolution in the concept and actual embodiment of information systems implies an ever expanding sphere of users and applications. It also implies that no information system will ever be a finished product. Whether hardware, software applications, sources of information, or services, new components can always be added. Consequently, there may never be a definable end point in the evolution. And if there is, it is not discernible from today's vantage point.
For comparison, consider the continuing development of the nation's telephone system. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell devised the method by which human speech and other sounds can be converted directly into electrical current and back again. In the succeeding 125 years, the United States, pursuing the social goal of "universal access," built the world's best telephone network, an accomplishment made possible by waves of innovation set in motion by Bell's invention. However, the telephone network is hardly complete. Today it is looked upon as a component of emerging nationwide and global information systems composed of subsystems as vast as the U.S. telephone network and as small as an individual computer, telephone, or other personal computing or communication device.
"Network-based systems integration is only emerging," said Mark Teflian, vice president and chief information officer at Covia, the nation's second-largest travel reservation system. Truly integrated networks not only shuttle data from one location to another, he said, but also enable assimilation of information, or learning.
According to Teflian and other colloquium participants, most of today's networked systems do not achieve the levels of integration necessary to help the user transform data into information and information into knowledge. In a sense, organizations that have effectively linked information technologies and people have scaled a plateau that becomes a staging area for an ascent to a higher mountain. These organizations, said Robert Martin, Bellcore vice president for software technology and systems, have managed to create network-based systems and, collectively, they face the formidable task of integrating those systems. In Martin's view, at the peak of the mountain they and others must climb is a "national information networking infrastructure."
The challenge for today, Martin, Teflian, and others said, is to build a foundation that supports successively higher levels of integration within and among information systems and, in so doing, increases the accessibility,