Imagine you’re a customer and you buy two products from Schneider Electric that come from two different business units. Maybe they’re both cooling systems, one from our Buildings unit and the other from Data Center. Naturally, since they’re from the same company, you would expect the products to work well together – to support a high degree of integration.
But now imagine you want to connect the data center cooling product to a third-party building management system. Now we move beyond integration to interoperability – that BMS has to be able to share data with and communicate back and forth with the cooling system. It’s relatively straightforward for a company to ensure integration among its own products. For fairly short money you can create one-off connectors between two products that allow them to connect. But it is just that – a one-off. You have to do the same thing every time you want to connect between two products; it’s not a reusable solution and is, thus, inefficient.
The ability to interoperate with products from a third party is where the real challenge lies given the sheer number of potential combinations and intracacies involved in connecting with each to gain efficiencies.
At Schneider Electric interoperability is a team effort that I currently lead by collaborating with the five business units and 11 market segments inside our company. Given our proclivity to partnering, that strategy naturally has to consider how our own products and solutions interoperate with those of our partners – and other solutions our customers may use.
Interoperability connotes a higher level of connectivity that involves the ability to deal with a number of different products, some of which are known to us and others that are not known – and maybe don’t even exist yet. Interoperability means delivering a form of integration that is repeatable and extensible, without an onerous amount of time and effort on the customer’s part. It connotes a high degree of connectivity, often using established protocols.
Schneider Electric addresses the issue among its own products by using a common way for our own products to integrate and interoperate. However, when our products talk to third party products, we use industry or vertical market standards, so customers don’t have to reinvent the wheel when they incorporate our products.
Fostering this kind of interoperability is a team effort that requires collaboration from different business units and market segments. We categorize them into four roles, each of which plays a part in delivering solutions.
First is the business unit product manager, who is concerned with making sure his products can interoperate with those from third parties. Product managers can’t possibly ensure integration with every possible third party product or protocol, so instead focus on being very open and making clear to anyone else how to go about integrating with a Schneider Electric product. By exposing our interfaces, we open them up to integrate with all kinds of other products and services.
Next is the solution manager or architect who needs to understand not only how each component of a solution integrates with all the others, but also how each component could be replaced with something else. The solution also needs to have end points to connect and disconnect, and those end points need to be open so customers and systems integrators can extend the solution if they so choose. Once it’s clear what the end points are, then customers can choose the appropriate, readily available integration tool to connect with it to ensure a well-integrated solution that’s also interoperable.
The third type of actor is a technology partner, which has similar requirements to the solution manager or architect. They need to expose how their product or solution can integrate with Schneider Electric’s, in terms of the protocols it supports, security model, level of communication and so forth.
The final actor is the Schneider Electric StruxureLab, which evaluates a solution against the requirements and design, looks at what products are involved, how they’re integrated, whether proper security is in place, performance and so on. In short, they certify the solution as being tested and approved as interoperable.
For customers, it shouldn’t matter whether the solution they buy is coming from Schneider Electric as a single product or as a collection of products. They just want a solution that has a stamp of approval as being interoperable, so they can incorporate it into their own environment with confidence that it will interoperate with their existing solutions, or build it out as they see fit. That is what Schneider Electric means by interoperability and it’s something we work hard with our partners to deliver.