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Data Integration

 
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patterns & practices Developer Center

Integration Patterns

Contents

Context

Problem

Forces

Solution

Example

Resulting Context

Testing Considerations

Security Considerations

Related Patterns

Acknowledgments

Context

Enterprise information systems are comprised of a variety of data storage systems, which vary in complexity and in the ways they access internal data. An example of a simple data storage system is a flat file. An example of a far more complex data storage system is a Database Management System (DBMS) server farm.

Problem

How do you integrate information systems that were not designed to work together?

Forces

  • Most enterprises contain multiple systems that were never designed to work together. The business units that fund these information systems are primarily concerned with functional requirements rather than technical architectures. Because information systems vary greatly in terms of technical architecture, enterprises often have a mix of systems, and these systems have incompatible architectures.
  • Many applications are organized into three logical layers: presentation, business logic, and data.
  • When you integrate multiple systems, you usually want to be as noninvasive as possible. Any change to an existing production system is a risk, so it is wise to try to fulfill the needs of other systems and users while minimizing disturbance to the existing systems.
  • Likewise, you usually want to isolate applications' internal data structures. Isolation means that changes to one application's internal structures or business logic do not affect other applications. Without isolated data structures, a small change inside an application could cause a ripple effect and require changes in many dependent applications.
  • Reading data from a system usually requires little or no business logic or validation. In these cases, it can be more efficient to access raw data that a business layer has not modified.
  • Many preexisting applications couple business and presentation logic so that the business logic is not accessible externally. In other cases, the business logic may be implemented in a specific programming language without support for remote access. Both scenarios limit the potential to connect to an application's business logic layer.
  • When making updates to another application's data, you should generally take advantage of the application's business logic that performs validations and data integrity checks. You can use Functional Integration to integrate systems at the logical business layer.
  • Direct access to an application's data store may violate security policies that are frequently implemented in an application's business logic layer.
  • The availability of commercial tools can influence the integration strategy between applications. Commercial tools usually carry a lower risk and expense when compared to a custom solution.

Solution

Integrate applications at the logical data layer by allowing the data in one application (the source) to be accessed by other applications (the target), as shown in Figure 1.

Ff647273.archdataintegration_f01(en-us,PandP.10).gif

Figure 1. Integrating applications at the logical data layer

To connect applications at the logical data layer, use one or more of the following patterns:

  • Shared Database. All applications that you are integrating read data directly from the same database.
  • Maintain Data Copies. Maintain copies of the application's database so that other applications can read the data (and potentially update it).
  • File Transfer. Make the data available by transporting a file that is an extract from the application's database so that other applications can load the data from the files.

When you are implementing Data Integration, you usually have to consider the following design tradeoffs:

  • Latency tolerance. Some forms of data integration imply a delay between updates to the data that is used by multiple applications. For example, in the Data Replication pattern [Teale03], the data is extracted from the source system, and it is transported over a network. The data might then be modified, and then it is inserted in a target database. This delay means that one system may have access to data that is more up to date than another system. This latency in propagating data can play an important role in integration.
  • Push versus pull. When accessing a data source's database, a system can either pull the data from the database or let the database itself push the data when a change occurs. Pull approaches are generally less intrusive, while push approaches minimize latency.
  • Granularity. Getting a larger chunk of information at one time is generally more efficient than propagating each small change by itself. This requires an understanding of the cohesion between multiple data entities. If one entity changes, are other entities also likely to be affected?
  • Master/subordinate relationships. If updates are made only to one application's data, propagating these changes is relatively simple. However, if multiple applications are allowed to update the information, you can run into difficult synchronization issues. For a more detailed description of synchronization issues, see the Master-Master Replication pattern [Teale03].
  • Synchronization logic versus latency. For geographically dispersed applications, sharing a single database may cause excessive network latency. To overcome this problem, you can use distributed databases that contain copies of the same data. However, distributed databases add the additional complexity of synchronization and replication logic.

Example

There are many real-life examples of Data Integration. For example, an order entry application may store a copy of product codes that reside in the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. If product codes do not change very frequently, the data from the source (the ERP system) may be synchronized daily or weekly with the data on the target (the order-entry application).

Resulting Context

After you decide to use Data Integration, you must then choose a particular kind of data integration that is appropriate for your situation. Your choices are summarized by the following patterns:

  • Shared Database
  • Maintain Data Copies
  • File Transfer

Shared Database

The Shared Database approach is shown in Figure 2. Shared Database aims to eliminate latency by allowing multiple applications to access a single physical data store directly. This approach is more intrusive because you usually have to modify some applications to use a common schema.

Ff647273.archdataintegration_f02(en-us,PandP.10).gif

Figure 2. Shared Database

Reading data directly from a database is generally harmless, but writing data directly into an application's database risks corrupting the application's internal state. Although transactional integrity mechanisms protect the database from corruption through multiple concurrent updates, they cannot protect the database from the insertion of bad data. In most cases, only a subset of data-related constraints is implemented in the database itself. Other constraints are likely to be contained in the business logic. This distribution of data constraints allows other applications to leave the database in a state that the application logic considers to be invalid. For a more detailed description, see Martin Fowler's Shared Database pattern in Hohpe and Woolf's Enterprise Integration Patterns [Hohpe04].

Maintain Data Copies

Instead of sharing a single instance of a database between applications, you can make multiple copies of the database so that each application has its own dedicated store. To keep these copies synchronized, you copy data from one data store to the other.

This approach is common with packaged applications because it is not intrusive. However, it does imply that at any time, the different data stores are slightly out of synchronization due to the latency that is inherent in propagating the changes from one data store to the next. Figure 3 shows the Data Replication pattern, which is a derivative of Maintain Data Copies.

Ff647273.archdataintegration_f03(en-us,PandP.10).gif

Figure 3. Data Replication

The mechanisms involved in maintaining these copies are complex. Data Patterns discusses these mechanisms in a cluster of 12 data movement patterns [Teale03] that use Maintain Data Copies as a root pattern. The other patterns in the guide include the following:

  • Move Copy of Data
  • Data Replication
  • Master-Master Replication
  • Master-Subordinate Replication
  • Master-Master Row-Level Synchronization
  • Master-Subordinate Snapshot Replication
  • Capture Transaction Details
  • Master-Subordinate Transactional Incremental Replication
  • Implementing Master-Master Row Level Synchronization Using SQL Server
  • Implementing Master-Subordinate Snapshot Replication Using SQL Server
  • Master-Subordinate Cascading Replication

For more details about these patterns, see Data Patterns on MSDN (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms998446.aspx).

File Transfer

In the File Transfer pattern, one application produces a file and transfers it so that other applications can consume it. Because files are a universal unit of storage for all enterprise operating systems, this method is often simple to implement. The disadvantage of this method is that two applications can lose synchronization with each other because each one is changing the file independently. For more information, see Martin Fowler's File Transfer pattern [Hohpe04].

Choosing Between Alternatives

There are many factors to consider when you choose the kind of data integration that is best for your particular requirements. Some of those factors include:

  • Tolerance for data that is not current (stale data)
  • Performance
  • Complexity
  • Platform infrastructure and tool support

After you pull data from a transactional system, the data is effectively stale. When you attempt to modify the data, you encounter potential contention and conflict resolution logic. If your conflict resolution logic is simple, and if you can accommodate relatively long time intervals with stale data, File Transfer may be the best way to integrate data.

If your conflict resolution logic is more complex, and if you have less tolerance for stale data, consider Shared Database or Maintain Data Copies. Before deciding on one or the other, consider your performance needs.

If your applications and databases are located in the same data center, then Shared Database enables you to use transaction managers to enforce data consistency. Using transaction managers to enforce data consistency limits stale data. However, if you have too many applications accessing the same data, the database may become a performance bottleneck for your system.

Maintaining multiple copies of the same data reduces the performance bottleneck of a single database, but it creates stale data between synchronizations. Also, if your application is geographically distributed, sharing one single database creates excessive network latency and affects performance. Maintain Data Copies also presents its own operations challenges. However, you can reduce the effort associated with maintaining multiple copies by using the synchronization and replication capabilities that are built into many DBMSs.

As you can see, each form of data integration has advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the right kind of data integration depends on the factors that are most important to your organization and on achieving the right balance among the tradeoffs.

Benefits

  • Regardless of the type of data integration you choose, the benefits are as follows:
  • Nonintrusive. Most databases support transactional multiuser access, ensuring that one user's transaction does not affect another user's transaction. This is accomplished by using the Isolation property of the Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, and Durability (ACID) properties set. In addition, many applications permit you to produce and consume files for the purpose of data exchange. This makes Data Integration a natural choice for packaged applications that are difficult to modify.
  • High bandwidth. Direct database connections are designed to handle large volumes of data. Likewise, reading files is a very efficient operation. High bandwidth can be very useful if the integration needs to access multiple entities at the same time. For example, high bandwidth is useful when you want to create summary reports or to replicate information to a data warehouse.
  • Access to raw data. In most cases, data that is presented to an end user is transformed for the specific purpose of user display. For example, code values may be translated into display names for ease of use. In many integration scenarios, access to the internal code values is more useful because the codes tend to more stable than the display values, especially in situations where the software is localized. Also, the data store usually contains internal keys that uniquely identify entities. These keys are critical for robust integration, but they often are not accessible from the business or user interface layers of an application.
  • Metadata. Metadata is data that describes data. If the solution that you use for data integration connects to a commercial database, metadata is usually available through the same access mechanisms that are used to access application data. The metadata describes the names of data elements, their type, and the relationships between entities. Access to this information can greatly simplify the transformation from one application's data format to another.
  • Good tool support. Most business applications need access to databases. As a result, many development and debugging tools are available to aid in connecting to a remote database. Almost every integration vendor provides a database adapter component that simplifies the conversion of data into messages. Also, Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) tools allow the manipulation of larger sets of data and simplify the replication from one schema to another. If straight data replication is required, many database vendors integrate replication tools as part of their software platform.

Liabilities

Regardless of the type of data integration you choose, the liabilities are as follows:

  • Unpublished schemas. Most packaged applications consider the database schema to be unpublished. This means that the software vendor reserves the right to make changes to the schema at will. A solution based on Data Integration is likely to be affected by these changes, making the integration solution unreliable. Also, many software vendors do not document their database schemas for packaged applications, which can make working with a large physical schema difficult.
  • Bypassed business logic. Because data integration accesses the application data store directly, it bypasses most of the business logic and validation rules incorporated into the application logic. This means that direct updates to an application's database can corrupt the application's integrity and cause the application to malfunction. Even though databases enforce simple constraints such as uniqueness or foreign key relationships, it is usually very inefficient to implement all application-related rules and constraints inside the database. Therefore, the database may consider updates as valid even though they violate business rules that are encoded in the application logic. Use Functional Integration instead of Data Integration if you need the target application to enforce complex business rules.
  • No encapsulation. Accessing an application's data directly provides the advantage of immediate access to raw data. However, the disadvantage is that there is little or no encapsulation of the application's functionality. The data that is extracted is represented in the format of an application-internal physical database schema. This data very likely has to be transformed before other applications can use it. These transformations can become very complex because they often have to reconcile structural or semantic differences between applications. In extreme scenarios, the data store may contain information in a format that cannot be used by other systems. For example, the data store might contain byte streams representing serialized business objects that cannot be used by other systems.
  • Simplistic semantics. As the name suggests, Data Integration enables the integration of data only. For example, it enables the integration of data contained in entities such as "Customer XYZ's Address." It is not well-suited for richer command or event semantics such as "Customer XYZ Moved" or "Place Order." Instead, use Functional Integration for these types of integration.
  • Different storage paradigms. Most data stores use a representation that is different from the underlying programming model of the application layer. For example, both relational databases and flat-file formats usually represent entities and their relationships in a very different way from an object-oriented application. The difference in representation requires a translation between the two paradigms.
  • Semantic dissonance. Semantic dissonance is a common problem in integration. Even though you can easily resolve syntactic differences between systems, resolving semantic differences can be much more difficult. For example, although it is easy to convert a number into a string to resolve a syntactic difference, it is more difficult to resolve semantic differences between two systems that have slightly different meanings for the Time, Customer, and Region entities. Even though two databases might contain a Customer entity, the semantic context of both entities might be dramatically different.

Testing Considerations

Testing data integration solutions can be difficult for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The direct access to the data source and destination does not allow isolation of a specific function. For example, using a test stub or mock object does not allow isolation of a specific function. If the data exchange uses a file to transfer data, you can use test files to test the data insertion.
  • Inserting data directly into the target database bypasses all or most business logic. Therefore, testing the insert itself may not be very meaningful because it is likely to succeed. Even if the data is inserted successfully into the database, the data may violate another application's business logic. As a result, the complete application may have to be regression tested after you insert data directly into the application data store.
  • Because Data Integration puts few constraints on the data to be inserted into an application's data store, a large data set may be required to provide appropriate coverage of all test cases.

Security Considerations

Data Integration presents potential security issues that are worth considering:

  • Coarse-grained security. Because Data Integration bypasses the application logic, it also bypasses any security rules that are enforced by the application logic. Many databases manage access privileges at the table level. At the table level, a user either has access to the Customer table or the user does not have access. Most applications enforce security at an object level. At the object level, a specific user has access only to those customer records that are associated with the user.
  • Privacy policies may not be enforced. Many corporate databases are subject to privacy policies that are based on corporate or legal guidelines. Directly accessing these data stores may be in violation of these policies because it is difficult to control the ways the retrieved data may be used. In comparison, Functional Integration can offer restricted access to sensitive data to only allow queries that do not expose individual data. For example, a functional interface may allow the user to query the average compensation in a specific region but not individual compensation.
  • Data may be encrypted. Data inside the database may be encrypted so that it is not accessible for data integration unless the integration solution obtains the key to decrypt the data. Providing the key to the data integration solution could present a security risk unless the key is properly protected.

Related Patterns

For more information, see the following related patterns:

  • Functional Integration. Data Integration is used to extract data from or insert data into an existing application. If direct access to the data source must be avoided, use Functional Integration instead. Functional Integration interfaces with an application's business logic.
  • Data Consistency Integration [Ruh01]. In cases where inserting data into an application is tied to specific business rules and validations, straight data integration might not be the best solution because the business logic has to be re-created for the data insert operation. In these cases, consider using Functional Integration to achieve data consistency.

Acknowledgments

[Britton01] Britton, Chris. IT Architectures and Middleware–Strategies for Building Large, Integrated Systems. Addison-Wesley, 2001.

[Hohpe04] Hohpe, Gregor, and Bobby Woolf. Enterprise Integration Patterns: Designing, Building, and Deploying Messaging Solutions. Addison-Wesley, 2004.

[Ruh01] Ruh, William. Enterprise Application Integration. A Wiley Tech Brief. Wiley, 2001.

[Teale03] Teale, Philip; Christopher Etz, Michael Kiel, and Carsten Zeitz. "Data Patterns.".NET Architecture Center. June 2003. Available at: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms998446.aspx.

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