Interoperability of ICT systems

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In order to face the challenges of global competitors and boost the growth potential of Europe’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry, hardware and software products, systems and networks need to work smoothly together. 

ISO/IEC 2382-01 defines interoperability as follows: "The capability to communicate, execute programs, or transfer data among various functional units in a manner that requires the user to have little or no knowledge of the unique characteristics of those units." The Commission definition is: "Interoperability means the capacity with which two programmes (a client and a server, for example) are able to exchange and interpret their data properly." 

Interoperability is not to be confused with compatibility ("the capability of a functional unit to meet the requirements of a specified interface without appreciable modification") and portability ("the capability to be interpreted, understood, or executed on various types of data processing systems without conversion and with little or no modification").

The November 2006 report of the ICT Task Force states that "to a large extent, twenty-first century business growth of SMEs will be built on multi-disciplinary partnerships, both within and outside the home country". It adds that "in order to enable these companies to exchange information at the requested (high) speed, a high level of interoperability is needed" and comes to the conclusion that "interoperability is a concern for SMEs". 

The report goes on to highlight the importance of interoperability for ICT takeup, adding that "the industry remains primarily responsible for delivering technical interoperability to meet market needs", as an important step to combating market fragmentation: "Interoperability is the main counterforce to fragmentation, which can act as an impediment to the 'network effects' opportunity in the new converging services to boost European competitiveness. Interoperability favourably influences intra-European and extra- European trade as it supports the cross border movement of goods and services."

The report stresses, however, that interoperability is not limited merely to technical aspects: "The legal, semantic, and organisational interoperability issues that exist in Europe have a more direct impact on the differing levels of ICT uptake in this region vis-à-vis the rest of the world." Digital signatures are named as one example of a technology the adaption of which was slowed down due to a lack of interoperabiltiy throughout Europe. 

The Commission stresses that new, innovative business models "will be based on increasingly interconnected and interdependent networks of enterprises interoperating as nodes in 'innovation ecosystems'". This vision can only materialise, however, if information infrastructure, networks, interfaces, protocols and file formats work smoothly together, at least within ecosystems, such as 

DG Information Society Head of Unit Gérald Santucci gave to consider, however that, for a company, "using multiple ecosystems simultaneously is quite complex and not cost-effective".  

The Universal Enterprise Infrastructure ("the infra") developed by Neutral Third Party is an approach to ensuring interoperability across such platforms. 

The Commission's research cluster on enterprise interoperability, which is coordinated by the DG Information Society's Unit 'ICT for Enterprise Networking' tries to "identify the main areas of research in the domain of enterprise interoperability". It has drafted an 
Enterprise Interoperability Roadmap
, which Santucci broke down as follows: 

  • Towards a network of independent enterprises interoperating as nodes in innovation ecosystems; 
  • interoperability of enterprises will be a key feature throughout and across the innovation ecosystems;
  • interoperability will be a utility-like capability that enterprises can invoke on the fly in support of their business activities;
  • specific IT functions will be delivered as services that are cheap, fast, reliable, and without major integration efforts, and;
  • IT will become a routine, and will be a transparent and invisible part of the business operation. 

In 2005 and 2006, the European Telecommunicaton Standards Institute (ETSI) held a series of workshops on "Standards, open standards and interoperability" (SOS Interoperability). Hans van der Veer, in charge of interoperability with ETSI, pointed out that interoperability has different meanings, depending on the defining body, and that different standards compete with each other. He stressed the increasing importance, due to an growing diversity of systems, services and devices, of inter-standard interoperability, which he defined as "The ability to link two or more systems, networks or services which differ essentially in technical respects, so that they can successfully provide an electronic communications service or can exchange and process information." He concluded that "there is a need for selective effort from, among others, standardisation institutions, the EU and national governments in the area of technical interoperability, which market parties cannot themselves provide".

In scientific applications, computers that are networked with each other need to interoperative - something which is not always easy to achieve, given the fact that academic institutions often work with self-developed rather than with standard applications, and that they are using a range of operating systems. Interoperability becomes even more critical with 
grid computing
, where computers not only interchange data, but work together on the same calculation tasks. 

e-government is a field of application where interoperability is eminently important. When citizens or companies are excluded from the adminsitrative process, or even from democratic decisionmaking, because their application don't work together with the administrations', technology contributes to discrimination and not to enabling social processes. When people, finance, goods and services move from one country to another, information society technologies should help in overcoming barriers and not erct new ones. In the mid-1990s, a community programme called IDA (Interchange of Data between Administrations) was therefore set up. 

In 2004, the 'Interoperable delivery of pan-European eGovernment services to public administrations, businesses and citizens (IDABC) Community programme followed. Within its framework, the  European Union Public Licence (EUPL) has been elaborated as an open-source licence facilitating interoperability between public administrations. The European Interoperability Framework "provides recommendations and defines generic standards with regard to organizational, semantic and technical aspects of interoperability, offering a comprehensive set of principles for European cooperation in eGovernment". 

In e-commerce, interoperability between systems run by the different parties - clients, vendors, banks, shippers, wholesalers etc. - must be guaranteed, not least for the saek of security concerning banking and other private data. 

e-health was addressed in the ICT taskforce report a "one key area in which legal, organisational, and semantic interoperability is necessary". Interoperable, secure systems can help safe manpower and costs in day-to-day healthcare and checkup situations, and they can help safe lifes in clinic environments. Only if systems are interoperable there will be competition between different vendors, with a faster pace of innovation and cost-cutting affects as a result.  Under FP6, the ARTEMIS project deals with integrating operability into medical information systems. A number of industry leaders have joint the Continua health alliance, which also focuses on mainstremaing interoperability (see EURACTIV, 26 June 2006). 

Microsoft has repeatedly spoken out in favour of greater interoperability to encourage SME take-up of ICT. The company works with other software and hardware vendors to develop technical interoperability out of the box. 

However, Microsoft has been engaged in a long-running battle with the European Commission  over access to its server interoperability protocols. The EC ordered Microsoft to hand over these server technical specifications in 2004 as part of an anti-competition ruling. Microsoft provided the technical specifications in December 2006. 

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said: "Interoperability is more pragmatic than other approaches, such as attempting to make all systems compatible at the code level, focusing solely on adding new layers of middleware that try to make all systems look and act the same, or seeking to make different systems interchangeable. With a common understanding of basic protocols, different software can interact smoothly with little or no specific knowledge of each other. The Internet is perhaps the most obvious example of this kind of interoperability, where any piece of software can connect and exchange data as long as it adheres to the key protocols."

Microsoft's industry adversaries in the European competition case (Adobe Systems, Corel, IBM, Linspire, Nokia, Opera, Oracle, RealNetworks, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems) have united in the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS). The European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) declared: "It is interoperability that drives competition on the merits and innovation. The ability of different computer products to interoperate allows consumers to choose among them. Because consumers can choose among them, interoperable products must compete with one another, and it is this competition that has driven innovation in the software industry."

  • ATHENA(Advanced Technologies for interoperability of Heterogeneous Enterprise Networks and their Applications)
  • CrossWork(Cross-organisational development processes in the automotive industry)
  • ECOLEAD(European Collaborative networked Organisations Leadership initiative)
  • InterOP(Interoperability Research for Networked Enterprises Applications and Software)
  • NO-REST(Networked Operations - Research into standards and standardisation)
  • TrustCom(Developing a framework for trust, security and contract management)
  • IST key action II"Interoperability"

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