Why MFT is essential in any integration landscape

Blog: Managed File Transfer – An overlooked solution

Over the last thirteen years I have earned my crust as an “IT architect”. In this job I assist organisations in the planning and implementation of changes in the IT landscape. While most people believe the difficulty lies in designing and communicating the needed changes, a pernicious problem occurs in the stages prior – let me illustrate this.

by Jan Schoonderbeek

Stakeholder Tom approaches the architect and says, “I can’t perform task Y because I don’t have a car.” Stated in this way, it seems clear: in order to get Y, the architect must direct the organisation to provide Tom with a car. But what exactly is task Y? Maybe it is the case that we regularly need a package delivered at some location elsewhere in the city. And yes, a car can assist Tom in bringing the package there. But do we really need to purchase a car for this? Perhaps we could make use of taxis.  Maybe a motorcycle, or maybe even a bicycle will do, if the package is not too big. Or we could just use a courier? As you see, the problem is not that Tom is lacking a car, but rather that Tom has a need for transport.

Unfortunately, stakeholder Tom did not express their problem as a need, but rather as the absence of one very specific solution. And stakeholders tend to do this a lot. Because of this, it is quite possible that one or more better solutions get overlooked. If only the stakeholders would express their actual needs! Or maybe, just maybe, the architect should push back a little, and probe for the problem behind the requested solution.

As an example, stakeholder Bill requests some sort of IT connection. He will say: “get me an FTP server to connect system B to my system C.” That sounds like a straightforward problem to solve: an FTP server is a system that talks the well-known File Transfer Protocol. Fortunately, such servers are readily available, relatively cheap, and straightforward to implement. It is easy to get one (or maybe we can make use of an existing one).

We need to take note here: IT landscapes nowadays consist of a multitude of applications, nearly all of which need information from other applications to be delivered in some form or format. Once individual point-to-point connections are created, you quickly find yourself entangled in a confused knot of connections – each of which need resources, maintenance, oversight, ownership, et cetera (hey, you are probably there already!). It should be clear: simply giving Bill the point-to-point connection he asks for might not be the best course of action. We should start looking at the problem behind the question, which is the need for connectivity. From there, we will be able to see (and show Bill) that throughout the IT landscape there is a whole raft of connectivity needs; varying from a need for a new connection, a need to change, augment, monitor or secure an existing connection, to a need to phase out a connection that is no longer needed. We already saw that for stakeholder Tom, we probably should not simply buy the requested car, but rather investigate alternatives, such as a courier service. Now what are the realistic alternatives for stakeholder Bill?

Generic and/or centralised solutions that can provide connectivity within an IT landscape can be typed using some well-known product categories, such as an enterprise service bus (ESB), message queue (MQ) systems, and specialised application integration tools. A category that is often overlooked as a possible solution is managed file transfer (MFT). It is a bit like overlooking public transport when thinking about the transport problem from above – you may find a proper form of transportation, but perhaps a bus or a tram would have sufficed, at a lower cost.

In 2004, the category of “managed file transfer” was coined as such by a well-known research firm and focused on application integration by moving data between them in the form of files. As such it originated from and includes the venerable FTP server. But a generic MFT solution is also likely to handle lots of other file transport protocols, such as the Secure Copy Protocol (SCP), web services, and Applicability Standard 2 (AS2). A simple blog does not offer enough time and space to delve very deep into such a broad category of products. Let us just note that there are specialised MFT-products that “talk” all these protocols and many more and are powerful means with which to create a generalised application integration platform. Not only that, MFT solutions often offer additional functionality: secure access, centralised logging, error management, audit trails etc. There is more to say about choosing an MFT solution over a set of point solutions, as well as about choosing an MFT solution over other centralised solutions such as ESBs or MQ systems, but I will leave that for another post. For now, I would encourage you to keep the following in mind. The next time you’re looking into a comprehensive solution for application integration issues in your IT landscape: employing an MFT solution to move files between your servers may sound like more hassle than just plunking in yet another FTP server, but once you have one in place, you will find out that new connections can be realised in a fraction of the time and operated at a fraction of the cost. Just keep focused on solving the stakeholder’s problem, not just on delivering the requested solution. Give them what they need, not what they want!