Hotel Online Special Report
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Damn Interfaces!
How Will Standards Affect 
The Hospitality Industry Today?
Special Report
 
By Mark Hamilton ( Update Plus) 

March, 1999 - As I frequently do, I recently found myself at the Updateplus.com web site. In the Feedback Forum, I found a posting by Rich Siegel entitled "Damn Interfaces!!!!."  His posting read:  "Is it still a problem? The AH&MA has been pursuing a standards initiative (HITIS) that, to some, is perceived as the savior for the industry, while to others it is a waste, and was started years too late. What do you think? Does the industry need standards? Is interfacing still a problem? Is HITIS the answer?"  I responded with some questions and ideas of my own: "I see interfacing as a multi-tiered issue. 

There are those that believe that the HITIS standards will be the long-awaited answer to interfacing woes. Then again, there are those opportunistic and creative folks that have designed very successful enterprises around the fact that there are no standards in place and have become the gurus of system integration without them. There are also those that feel that with the real development of "open systems" there is no need for other "standards." Then there is the group with the eye on the horizon, exploring new technology like, dare I say it, JAVA or other inter/intra/extra/net technologies that may just do away with the need for standards all together." 

As an Instructor, Director of IT and the Technology Research and Education Center at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, I live a bit of a dual life (some say schizophrenic.)  The environment in which I exist is far from the  "ivory tower" that is so often associated with the University atmosphere.  We work very hard to integrate our hotel operation into every aspect of the curriculum here.  In fact, we have an 86 room franchised Hilton hotel with 45,000 square feet of banquet and convention facility as part of our educational facility.  There not only is a real sense of reality here, reality abounds!  While researching for this article, we are going through a $5 million renovation that includes a number of new systems; a new CRS interface, S&C implementation, two POS installs, and a temporary restaurant relocation.  The systems aspect is certainly real.  At least the planning, specification, bidding, purchasing, support, integration, interfacing, troubleshooting, and users seem real enough. 

"What we have here is a failure to communicate." 
 
Since the introduction of hospitality automation, we have had the problem of trying to make systems communicate with one another. Companies developed solutions around their areas of expertise. Integrated solutions were not an option. So, what is the problem?  Posting, of course.  This is always the first problem.  How do we get the charge to the folio without expending more time and energy than perhaps that posting is worth?  The answer, of course, is the development of an interface to make the communication happen for us and eliminate the need for manual posting. 

Hospitality technology has evolved very quickly in the past few years. From some perspectives, hospitality technology is maturing.  Many say "it's about time."  The industry and its technology are complex. They have been developed with different companies using different ideas and solutions to address the needs of hotels to optimize revenue and improve guest service through technology.  Needless to say this is a historically uphill battle. 

The history of hospitality interfacing or integration standards goes back a long way.  Does anyone remember HITEC in 1994?  Windows was just starting to hit the market as an option for hospitality systems. Hank Coleman and Charles Davis were demoing a system very close to vaporware. There were banners hanging in the Infomart with "Interfacing and Integration" all over them. 

Additionally, it was the debut for the Integrating Technology Consortium (ITC) with David Toby. Toby brought together some of the key players necessary to make such a project have a significant impact on the hospitality industry.  This was just the start of the discussion.  But the best part of it was that we were finally having the discussion at all. The ITC was arranged as an organization of interested  hotel companies and vendors.  They raised over a quarter of a million dollars, more than once. The ITC certification system was based on different levels of product certification (blue, gold, and platinum), platinum being the highest level of certification.  The concept was designed around a piece of middle-ware (a router) that would allow the interfacing of different systems.  The ITC initiative was a powerful one.  Committees were established.  Data dictionaries were developed along with the interface specifications.  Then something happened.  The ITC went away. 

There are theories about why it didn't work.  Some include the rather HIS-centric nature of Toby and the ITC.  Others center on the hardware-intensive nature of the interface.  In any case, by the mid-90s, the ITC had vanished.  But not without a successor and the continuing of ideas brought out by the ITC discussions.  The hospitality industry at this point opened the door for a change in the way interfacing was provided, as well as the need for a standard associated with interfaces themselves.  In addition to opening this discussion, some other interesting ideas unfolded. 

Protocol Technologies entered the scene with its "black box" solution that sits between the interfacing systems.  The product is touted by Protocol as "providing all the benefits of an industry-wide, multi-disciplinary standard without the immense cost associated with its development."  Sounds a lot like what ITC was trying to do but without the need for consensus. This approach and timing is certainly applaudable. 

Following the end of ITC, the hospitality industry's Intel-based companies went to Microsoft to get advice and identify standards. This was the birth of the WHIS Initiative (Windows Hospitality Interface Standards.)  This was a short-lived effort on Microsoft's part to provide interface standards to the industry. WHIS was the direct predecessor of the HITIS movement.  The need to bring more individuals and companies to the table was apparent at this point and it was Bill Fisher and the AH&MA that made that happen through the HITIS initiative. 

There were certain things that were very clear at this point. First, the need for standards was real.  Second, although there was some work already done, there was an insurmountable amount of work left to create a solution. An organization was needed that could be neutral enough to satisfy Sun (JAVA) and Microsoft while not providing any competitive advantage. 

From a HITIS White paper on Interfacing: 

No matter what the method of connectivity, it is necessary for the two parties to agree on the data elements that are going to be exchanged. One of the things that are evident is that there are only a finite number of data elements (or fields) which are represented within the hotel environment. Unfortunately, there are no standards within the industry as to these elements. For example, something as simple as a guest name could be represented in many different ways. You could have separate elements for first, last, title, etc. or you could have a single field which is populated with last, title, first. If you include the potential problems with international names, the problem is quite complex. If you consider the data elements necessary to represent the address, the problem becomes a monumental project. Since there is no standard, the systems typically have to convert data to communicate with another system. The general method is for the external device vendor to make the definition, and for the PMS to be programmed to the device manufacturer's specification. 

Something as seemingly simple as a room number can be represented in many different ways. Is it purely a numeric? Is it alphanumeric? How many characters should it have? Is it left justified? Are their trailing spaces, or trailing nulls? Each system has set it's own specification and no industry body has attempted to set a standard which may be used globally ensuring that data will be consistently represented between systems. Not only are there no standards for the data elements, there are also no standards as to the data element types. Some systems use short integers, some use long. Some use dates as strings, some use dates as integers. Some dates are based on number of days from January 1, 1900 or some other date, others from the year 0. The method used to avoid these conflicts is to convert all data to string values and create a fixed length record where each field starts at a specified character and ends at a specified location. 

In order to create a usable standard, the data elements and the types of data must be standardized. All of this could (and should) be done for any type of communication standard. It is clear, however, that the serial interface cannot be the standard of the future. We have evolved into a world where networking is the only acceptable method for establishing connectivity between systems. 

Well, it's clear that the hospitality industry is a real mixed bag of opinions on how systems are constructed. HITIS adopted a "best practice" approach to developing the standards by using Unified Modeling Language for Object Oriented Application and Development UML/OOAD. The Unified Modeling Language (UML) is the industry-standard language for specifying, 
visualizing, constructing, and documenting the artifacts of software systems. It simplifies the complex process of software design, making a "blueprint" for construction. The UML is the visual modeling language of choice for building object-oriented and component-based systems. This approach gave the standards initiative a very neutral stance, providing no real competitive advantage to a particular company and providing a choice of how to implement the standards with language independence. 

It becomes obvious when reviewing the standards process that it has everything that a real standards process should.  This was clarified at the end of 1998 when the AH&MA was recognized as an official Standards Developer Organization (SDO) by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  ANSI certification and recognition provides prospective end-users and vendors with reassurances that the development of HITIS standards have been an open, public, and consensus process. 

So the big question about standards is: How will they affect the hospitality industry today? 

I have come to the conclusion that the possibility exists for standards to bring down the cost of interfacing and reduce the need for much of the customization of interfaces that exists in the absence of adopted standards.  The problem with the question is the word "today."  Christopher Yellen from Choice Hotels, agrees that standards are needed and that the AH&MA is doing a great job with HITIS.  However, life goes on. The industry can't stop interfacing just because the standards are not ready.  So, Choice went with Protocol Technology's solution for its interface needs. 

When you look at just the shear cost of interfacing, any help would be greatly appreciated. Sybil Peckham with MicroScript helped to break it down in the following way: given that the average property has 4 interfaces at a cost of $2,000 each, that puts the initial costs per property at $8,000.  Then you can't forget to double that number because each system vendor has to have an interface to the interfacing system.  That brings the initial cost to $16,000 per property.  There are over 49,000 properties in the US - 82% have PMS systems.  So, the total property-level investment in interfaces is somewhere around $650 million.  If you look at that from a management company's perspective, that would be $16K x from 10 - 100 properties under the management company.  So a management company could spend from $160k to $1.6 million on interfaces.  Then throw in the PMS life cycle (5 years), new software releases (2-3 per year) and hardware and operating system upgrades every 2 or 3 years - this really gets out of hand! 

When asking Dick Moore, Chair of the HITIS Posting Devices Technical Committee, and Professor at Cornell's Hotel Program, about the time-frame for workable standards to be accepted and implemented. Moore said that it could take years for the standards to be used across the industry.  "We have to think about all the legacy systems out there.  It is usually not in the best interest of a vendor to retrofit their interfaces on legacy systems.  It may take 3 to 10 years for standards to be widely used," Moore said.  But once standards are in place, interfacing will be a new ballgame.  There will still be work involved.  However, there will be no need to write code - just the need to update tables. 
 
So what about other companies that have developed quite a business around the development of interfaces in the absence of standards.  You would think that they would abhor the idea of the completion of standards. MicroScript has created a "non-invasive" interfacing product that uses terminal emulation and a "screen-scraping" technique to parse data to the interfacing system. MicroScript sees its product as a standards-enabling technology that will eventually assist in making legacy systems fully HITIS compliant.  MicroScript believes the need for its services will never go away, even with the adoption of integration standards.  However, it will be important for vendors to buy-in.  Remember what Rick Warner of Bass Hotels & Resorts said recently: Once standards are established, his company will not purchase non-compliant systems and programs.  This sends a strong message. 

To highlight this idea, Moore said, "Companies need to embrace interface standards and then be ready to reinvent their companies."  Moore believes that standards will do away with the need for interface customization.  He cites this as part of the evolutionary side of the business.  Even if standards do have this kind of impact, one would think that the technologies that are currently being used to customize interfaces could certainly be used to enhance other aspects of hospitality technology. 

I keep thinking of the Management Company with umpteen different properties with as many systems, vendors and multiple interfaces, attempting to develop an EIS.  Eventually, standards will help.  It is difficult to see how they will alleviate the need for customization.  As soon as the standard is set, some creative CFO will find a way to stretch the capabilities in a way that requires customization.  This too is part of the evolutionary process. 

So, what does Hamilton think?  

Well, how can someone be against an effort to improve the way that hospitality technology functions?  Standards are certainly needed and have a place.   Will they do away with the companies that now provide interfacing customization?  I see both the "black box" and "non-invasive" technologies as tools that will outlive the interfacing issue.  These are tools that will, in the end, have many uses to our industry. 

Will standards reduce the cost associated with interfacing?  Certainly, as long as consumers are educated on what being "standards compliant" really means and vendors pass their maintenance and development savings on to the users.  The true cost of writing and maintaining interfaces should be greatly reduced, or perhaps eliminated.  Larger companies can already save by using solutions offered by companies mentioned here and perhaps technology that is yet to come.  Smaller hotel companies will inevitably have to wait for standards to emerge before they can reap the benefits, based on the sheer costs of the alternatives. 

So how long will it take?  Who knows?  Legacy systems will always be a problem.  Vendors will eventually buy-in to standards or risk the development of systems outside the standards.  I think that Moore's 10-year prediction seems appropriate.  But I would not look for wholesale changes to take place overnight.  The pain of interfacing will certainly continue until standards are in place and other alternatives become affordable for everyone.  As an industry, we will eventually look back at these as the good ol' days, when we had real challenges in hospitality technology. 

Special thanks to the following for assisting in the research for this article: The AH&MA, Choice Hotels , CynterCon, MicroScript, Rational Software, and Protocol Technologies. 
 

Mark Hamilton may be reached by e-mail at: mhamilton@uh.edu.
 
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Contact:
The UPDATE Magazine
Publisher & Editor:
Richard Siegel
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Atlanta, GA 30339
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Also See: HITIS Successfully Completes Beta Tests Involving POS to PMS Interfaces / Nov 1998 
Evolving Technologies To Drive Competitive Advantages / Arthur Andersen 

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