Integration fundamentals – What to Avoid

An opinion piece here, so please poke holes and post criticisms below.
Lately I have been going through a lot of system changes at work. That is to say, more than normal, and most at the early stages. We’ve been stuck in a state of limbo, mainly because the several systems we want to upgrade or change all talk to each other in one way or another. I’ll first briefly outline one house of cards, and then move to what should have been done better, generally speaking (or typing as the case may be).

We are on Exchange 2007, and want to go to Exchange 2010. That’s not too difficult you may think, you can build your whole new Exchange environment and move a few mailboxes over for testing, then just do a mass mailbox migration over the weekend and everything’s great.

This would be true, if several other systems weren’t leveraging off of Exchange 2007. Firstly, voicemail. Our phone system will pass unanswered calls through to the Unified Messaging Exchange 2007 server, which means we need the same functionality in Exchange 2010. How do we even test this? We need to contact our PBX support, and pay for changes back and forth out of hours. It’s not something we can easily do without business impact. Then, the PBX has no official support for Exchange 2010, so if something doesn’t work or goes wrong we’re fairly stuck.

Then, we’ve got the same problem with faxing. It goes from our PABX via Unified Messaging. Both of these services are considered business critical.

At the same time, we want to change our PBX system. So we’ve got the above problems in reverse, but on top of that we use OCS 2007 R1 which also needs to get upgraded. So now, we need to deploy a new PBX system, integrate it with a new Exchange environment, which in turn is integrated with Lync to replace OCS, and that talks to the phone system for both making/receiving calls and precense.
Now, because we want to change our PBX system we may need to also change our switch infrastrucutre because if we keep what we have, and went with a provider such as Cisco, they would say that they won’t support what issues happen with vocie quality if the switches aren’t theirs. Our switch infrastructure is up for renewal anyway.

I could go on about this with several other systems that are tied in, but hopefully the above is starting to paint a picture.

When integrating systems, think about how the OSI 7 layer model works. Refresher: each network layer can talk above and below it, regardless of what it is. This means that anything that gets changed in your network environment should work, if it meets the standards. You can swap a network card over, and everything else above it will work exactly the same way as before (drivers pending). You can swap a centralised switch, and it will continue to pass the packets of data around like the old switch did. Your application can talk to anything else on the network when anything below it gets swapped over. Hopefully that shows what I’m trying to say…

Where possible, use standard protocols or single supplier solutions. If you’ve got something that needs to send alerts out, go for simple SMTP emails. Everything supports it, and little to no work should be required when you have to change something. If they won’t support standards like SQL databases of either the latest version or the version before, you should hear alarm bells ringing.
If you need two seperately supplied systems to talk to each other, get each company to show proof they support the other, and will in the future. There’s no use 3 years later saying that company X would say it would work.

This should be the case for any system implemented – think about the future and what would happen, and what might go wrong if you have to swap out any part of it.

How I started in I.T.

I thought this would be a good discussion point. I’m sure we have some readers who have a passion for I.T. but may not know where to start for their career, and there’d be some interesting stories on how some of us managed to get our way into the industry.

Personally, growing up I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do – but I did know that I liked computers, and spent a lot of time on them from a very young age. My Dad was a computer technician in the hardware and building PC’s sense – so I sort of assumed I’d do that. After doing some work experience with him, and being put on a production line (he was higher up than that) being told to sort out a box of screws to different sizes, I decided I probably didn’t want to be a computer technician after all.
After finishing high school, I then had an opportunity to do two weeks work at my Dad’s new place of employment, where he was the systems builder and tester. I was excited to be earning $13 an hour back in mid 1999 but the job was pretty much just building PC’s out of components, installing an image and testing that the basics worked. Again, it put me off being a computer technician, but I had no idea what else to do.

I then decided I’d do a TAFE course in Diploma of I.T. It would take 3 years to do, and from what I can remember, the first lessons I had were: Programming (something I knew I didn’t want to do), Networking (Interested in this but was too basic so lost interest), Flow Charts (this wasn’t what the course was called, but that’s all it seemed to be and was incredibly boring) and I don’t even remember the other two. I didn’t last long, dropped out and gave up on my IT career as I still didn’t really know what I wanted.

Jump forward 6 months, and I ended up applying for a call centre job. It paid well for a 19 year old ($28k back in late 2000) and thought I might as well give it a try and see how it went. 3 months into this job, and IT role came up in the company, to support the call centre itself. I considered applying, but missed the deadline and thought I won’t bother because I have no experience. The job came up again, as no suitable applicants had applied yet. This time I thought that I might as well give it a shot, and actually got it! From then on, my career continuted to be in I.T.

That’s how my I.T. career started, and despite my efforts, I landed a job. Part of it was dumb luck, part passion of a hobby, and partly being able to demonstrate the right skills and knowledge requierd. I had no qualifications or formal training either!

So, what can I tell you from all this? Aim to do what you want, and if you don’t know – just try something else. You might find a job you like, but even if you don’t it will open up more opportunities, contacts and experiences to help your career along.

Hopefully some of you can share your stories below as myself and others would love to read.