The Disappearing Integrator: A Cautionary Tale

By Howard M. Cohen
integrator's role

"Integrator." It's a word many channel partners have used to describe themselves: "systems integrator," or "network integrator," for example.

The term "integrator" refers to professionals who select preferable hardware from various manufacturers and preferable software from various providers and combine them to create superior solutions. The missing link in the middle between Dev and Ops.

The Cloud Changes the Definition

Long ago, some enterprising integrators realized that some of the solutions they were building on customers' premises would be deployed far more effectively in their own data centers. Rather than building a complete data backup solution for each customer, they could build one in their own data center and allow many customers to use it. Each customer would pay a fraction of the cost of operations plus a healthy profit margin and still pay less than they would for their own. Taken together, the fractions of the cost collected from each customer could add up to several hundred percent of the actual total cost, creating a fantastic level of profit. Thus, cloud computing was born.

Now, integrators would combine best-of-breed hardware and best-of-breed software with best-of-breed cloud services to create superior solutions.

Virtualization Redefines Everything

The ability to host multiple customers on a single infrastructure, which enabled these enterprising integrators to create cloud computing, was fundamentally based on the concept of virtualization. Rather than a direct one-to-one proportion of another server machine for each new customer, the cloud integrators were able to create multiple "instances" of a server operating system on each server, meaning that one server machine could host many customers. One storage network could provide storage for many customers.

Virtualization continues to expand.

Desktop virtualization removes the limitations of bandwidth, allowing users to become increasingly mobile without losing the efficiency of a client device on a local network. The user experience remains robust while the user becomes ever more portable.

Server virtualization enables increased efficiency at reduced cost by moving server instances from host to host as needed to improve responsiveness and eliminate underutilized resources. Costs plummet while server functionality becomes increasingly portable.

Application virtualization in platforms like Docker and Google Kubernetes replace the traditional monolithic app with a modular assembly of containers. Each container holds within it a specific functionality, a microservice that will be called by other microservices as necessary to perform its function.

Because it contains its code, the OS kernel it needs to run, all the libraries, storage specifications and other resources it depends upon, the container does not require much from the host it is running on, so it becomes highly portable and able to run across multiple cloud networks and systems as necessary to serve the user. It's resilient, too, because a malfunctioning container is quickly discarded and replaced with a new one as necessary.

A theme emerges: It's all about portability—the ability to have the data you need, the application you need to work with the data and all other relevant resources always available to you, wherever you may be and on whatever device you may have. Leveraging virtualization to create cloud systems that run container-based microservices enables incredible, almost effortless portability.

Where Does This Leave the Integrator?

With network, server and storage infrastructure coming from cloud service providers, there is no longer a need for a network integrator to integrate the platform. It's already there. With applications developed in containers that reside on those cloud infrastructures, there's no need for a systems integrator to integrate the applications. Users connect on portable devices of their own choosing, which are easily and securely connected to their network. No integrator is required. The relationship between Dev and Ops has never been closer.

Classic integrators are faced with the challenge of reinventing themselves. Different cloud services from different providers still need to be integrated with each other to perform flawlessly. Security protocols, transport and other issues must be managed. A network that is growing from 4.3 billion connected devices to 32 undecillion will require far more sophisticated monitoring and management than anyone has ever conceived of. There is still much integrating to be done.

However, even as all this redefinition goes on, many integrators will find customers seeking new and more expanded services. Data science will become a very important component of their new, emerging business as customers seek someone who can take all this massive data and use analytic wizardry to turn it into actionable information.

The demand on applications will be that they use more and more cognitive functionality to anticipate more for their user, making their user's experience far more robust than ever. Users will expect connections between the cyber world and the real world, such as WiFi-based home and industrial automation with voice interfaces like Amazon Echo, Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana, to become completely seamless. IFTTT (If This Then That) programming may become an important new enabler.

There are many avenues today's integrators may choose to go down as they redefine themselves and their businesses. Which are you considering?

Howard M. Cohen is a 30-plus-year IT industry veteran who continues his commitment to the channel as a columnist and consultant.

This article was originally published on 2016-06-07