CBORD Explains: Interface and Integration

It is undeniable that the rapid advancements of technology are something that demands we develop a working knowledge of technology and how we use it. The key to staying informed about the nature of technology is to understand the basic structure of technical systems and their applications in order to understand how they are connected to each other.

A good starting place is to maintain a correct (and consistent) technical vocabulary. This can feel baffling; acronyms abound and so many of the terms are so similar in spelling and pronunciation that they are often used interchangeably. This can lead to confusion and be potentially harmful.1 Attention to detail can make learning about the nature of technical programs frustrating. It is also important to learn them in a particular sequence to understand how they relate to each other and with the entire system as a whole.

Navigating technical language is a roadblock for many people; it hinders their understanding of the function technologies that they work with every day. In order to strengthening our foundation of technical knowledge, we decided to unpack the meaning of system interfaces and integration as a starting point.

Interface

One of the most common descriptions of a system interface is a bridge connecting islands across a body of water. An interface can be unidirectional from one side of the bridge to the other, allowing traffic to flow in a single direction. While this interface is efficient in relaying data and information, "there is no mechanism to return that information to the originating system."2 Put another way, this bridge does not offer a route for a round-trip journey. A bidirectional interface is a bridge with two separate lanes of traffic moving in opposite directions; all journeys to and from each island can be made crossing this bridge.

But this bridge only connects two islands. What about bridges which connect a chain of islands, from one to another to another? "The term 'interface' is also used to refer to a hardware or software component that translates or converts from one interface to another interface."3 From one island to the next is how we steer from system to system in order to accomplish seemingly simple tasks; but the simplicity is deceptive.

Integration

Unfortunately, not all technological terms can be described using familiar images; there isn't always an analogy that will easily describe the function of technical systems. "Integration" is one of these ambiguous terms. Also, until interfaces are understood, integration can be difficult to comprehend. Integration can best be understood when one envisions how we use technology in our daily lives.

Imagine you are working at your computer entering information into a database; on your screen you can cross-reference this data with a separate database, view results from another system, and review more information to cross-reference everything without ever leaving the same page. "To the end user, all workflows within an integrated system appear seamless, allowing them to gain access to all information through one process. User activity is completed in one step, with no delays related to translation or copying."4 System integration can handle the flow of information from multiple processes; the expansion of applications is the key to understanding the functionality of system integration.

Integration allows a user to employ multiple systems simultaneously from a single place without shifting away from a single page. Interfaces are about the systems themselves, but integration is for the end-user, its entire purpose is efficiency and value to the person using the technology. Integration is not about the technology, it is about us; it allows us to interact with information in clear and creative ways.

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1. Jeremy Kimber, "One, But Not the Same. Integration or Interoperability?" Honeywell Security Group (a division of Honeywell International Inc.), 2012, accessed November 4, 2016, https://www.security.honeywell.com/uk/documents/Integration-v-interoperability_0212.pdf ^

2. Rhonda McManus et. al., "Suggested Definitions for Informatics Terms: Interfacing, Integration, and Interoperability" American Journal of Health-System Pharmacists 69 (July 2015): 1163-5, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.eprescribingtoolkit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Suggested-definitions-for-informatics-terms-Interfacing-integration-and-interoperability_AmJHealthSyst-Pharm-2012.pdf ^

3. AFDtek (A Division of Fastek International), "Systems Integration Overview," accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.afdtek.com/downloads/whitepapers/White_Paper-Integration_Overview.pdf ^

4. McManus et. al. ^