Why digital farming initiatives should consider using open source integration frameworks.

Director Digital Business, Germany

julho 29, 2016

While strategic IT programs such as the massive Digital Farming initiatives spreading across the globe often tend to leverage existing enterprise “closed-source” solutions for pushing own integration and data standards into the market, Valtech sees evidence that other approaches have a much higher chance to succeed in the long run.

The digital transformation of processes and communication started in the agricultural industry quite some time ago. What has changed over time is the fact that this disruptive process is now reaching even the smallest farmers in poorly developed regions of the world due to the availability of digital means at a very low cost, such as personal computers, smartphones, tablets, sensor technology, weather data and the like. As a result, entirely new uses have emerged and are rapidly spreading in the every day work of agricultural professionals. The current challenge, both for these professionals as well as service providers and manufacturers, is to connect the huge number of available devices and sources of valuable information in a smart and efficient way, and to leverage the full potential of the new digital ecosystem that is either already available or in the making.

For the providers of both business and IT services, this creates a huge opportunity to demonstrate state-of-the art abilities in understanding the key issues of the aforementioned change: Not only has it become necessary to contribute information and services that can be applied in a multitude of contexts, but also to establish technical standards in order to allow an easy integration of these services for maximal convenience and business value.

Most of the already existing integration approaches and alliances are, however, focusing on “walled garden“ scenarios, where the benefits for the users are tightly connected to restricting themselves to the toolset and environment of one provider or a smaller group. The obvious reason for this is the necessity to justify investments for establishing such a standard with a business case and a good enough ROI.

These questions remain:

  1. Will any single provider/manufacturer (or small group) ever be able to cover all relevant integrations and connections required from a global standpoint?
  2. Are farmers across the globe willing to bind themselves to one such digital ecosystem, reaping it’s potential advantages but also accepting it’s limitations?

Looking back at the history of standardization initiatives provides one simple lesson: pragmatism and openness are key – at least in the long run. From introducing currencies in ancient times to defining the USB interface standard – if you want to create Win-Win situations for all participants of such an initiative and a high momentum for acceptance of your standard, a high degree of applicability and flexibility needs to be part of it’s DNA. While this may sound contradictory, it is the high level of practicability and ease of adaptation that characterizes some of the most successful standards we know.

Therefore it is Valtech’s strong belief that while “walled garden” scenarios have the potential to create stable and convenient toolsets to a certain degree, they come at a dangerous cost of flexibility and freedom of choice. In times when the application of best practices requires farmers to show a high level of flexibility and apply a mix of various solutions to ensure the necessary sustainability, efficiency and efficacy, from a Valtech point of view such restrictive standardization approaches are inappropriate due to their obvious intention to sacrifice flexibility for quick capitalization. What’s more, as the challenges posed by weed resistances, environmental aspects, international competition and regulatory compliance are drastically increasing and the working conditions are massively different in the various regions or farming scenarios worldwide, flexibility and adaptability can be seen as a, maybe as the crucial ability of modern farming today and even more so in the future. And with drones, sophisticated sensors and powerful smartphones becoming a commodity, and the ever-growing power of Internet-driven, crowd-sourcing initiatives - can it honestly be considered smarter to bet on regulations and restrictions or on flexibility and openness instead?

Therefore, the aim of any such digital framework for the agricultural domain should primarily be to allow maximal connectivity and the free flow of information based on open standards and interfaces. At Valtech, we see such integration scenarios to be increasingly succeeding in various industries and settings primarily due to the fact that they do not limit the end-user to a pre-combined set of solutions, but allow for combining the full range of available products and services as they fit most perfectly to the needs of the respective profession and environment. Then, creating tightly integrated and preconfigured sets of solutions on top of such open frameworks not only provides specific and more seamlessly interacting products, but also allows us to rightfully charge a premium for such services and thus come to sensible business cases for providers/manufacturers. But the key benefit actually does not even come from present use cases - it lies in future applications and mash-up services becoming available only as a result of such open standards.

The question remains - How do you create the underlying flexible standards for system integration both of devices and systems plus the required harmonization of information being exchanged if the initial cost for such an activity will not be producing a direct return-on-investment? Typically at this point, any CFO becomes nervous and for good reasons. But a great starting point would be if at least some of the medium to large players in the agri-domain could see the need for an open standard and act accordingly in their given projects.

Because any current or foreseeable integration project in any agriculturally related IT environment can easily anticipate the need of later integrations with further components, touchpoints and devices. If these projects consistently relied on the same existing, open technology stacks for the system integrations part, they could significantly facilitate later connections with other players using the same technology or at least similar approaches. Some great examples of proven integration technology that is available as Open Source and could play a major role in such a context are Apache Camel , Mule ESB or Spring Integration. All solutions have a high maturity level and good reliability and are being applied globally by a steadily growing community of professionals. But most importantly they are modern integration frameworks and suites that foster modular and flexible integration concepts instead of hardcoded point-to-point integrations. Which, for the scenario described, can be seen as a key requirement for any future-proof integration architecture.

Besides using open technologies for integration purposes, there is a second key driver towards a higher level of standardization: Information structure. As most larger integration projects, especially those started by global players in the agricultural industry, are facing similar challenges with exchanging data between their local subsidiaries and global instances, an internationally applicable and localizable set of data specification is required anyway. By defining data structures and individual fields in a well-documented and most generic way, the projects themselves can not only facilitate their global rollout but also support the exchange of information with business units, that had not originally planned to be considered as well as third parties of any kind.

What lastly turns the above mentioned activities into a potential starting point for establishing industry wide integration and data standards is a simple yet very challenging step for large corporations: sharing. By consistently and openly sharing knowledge with the rest of the relevant community about the key aspects of systems integration and allowing others to leverage existing artifacts and best practice solutions, a de-facto standard is very likely to become established much faster than via any formal initiative or committee.

Even for first-movers, who contribute initially more to such a community, the benefits in the long run can be significant. Not only can you expect to get qualified feedback and suggestions for your approach out of a growing community, but the combined bandwidth of a multitude of organizations also exposes surface issues and constraints of any given concept much faster than you could possibly do on your own. Over time, the effect can even revert. Based on the adaptions and enhancements done by others, such as new system connectors, the benefits may outweigh the initial invests multiple times. In addition, a combination of free basic services and commercial premium services even provides options for recapitalization.

In order to make this vision of an open digital farming integration environment become a reality, Valtech is willing to support any interested party from the agricultural industry with our team of Senior Integration Experts and Agile Specialists with basic knowledge and consultancy as a full-day workshop - as long as the outcomes and later results will be shared afterwards with the community of industry peers. Get in touch - digital farming is happening... now.