What is interoperability?

Interoperability refers to the degree to which a software system, devices, applications or other entity can connect and communicate with other entities in a coordinated manner without effort from the end user. This is often related to things like data access, data transmission and cross-organizational collaboration. Similar to compatibility, interoperability helps organizations achieve higher efficiency and a more holistic view of information.

Types of interoperability include the following:

  • Syntactic. Systems that can communicate successfully through compatible formats and protocols. Tools that facilitate syntactic interoperability are recognized formatting standards, such as XML and SQL. This is also sometimes referred to as structural interoperability.
  • Semantic. This is the ability of systems to exchange and accurately interpret information automatically. Semantic interoperability is achieved when the structure and codification of data is uniform among all systems involved.
  • Cross-domain or cross-organization. This refers to the standardization of practices, policies, foundations and requirements of disparate systems. Rather than relating to the mechanisms behind data exchange, this type only focuses on the nontechnical aspects of an interoperable organization.

Interoperability by industry

Interoperability spans a wide range of characteristics, concerns and requirements, particularly depending on the industry or professional discipline in question. Here are a few examples of what interoperability means for different types of verticals.

  • Healthcare. The healthcare industry relies on multiple sources of information, such as laboratories, clinics, pharmacies, hospitals and primary care providers, which use multiple systems to record this information. Therefore, health information technology systems should be interoperable to allow the relevant exchange of electronic health records and more comprehensive care to patients.
  • Telecommunications. Components of telecommunication compatibility are typically signal availability, scale of the network, frequencies and equipment coverage. For example, interoperability is needed for successful communication of two-way radios. ITU-T is the standard used in international telecommunications to achieve interoperability.
  • Software development. Interoperability in software development refers to the functionality of different programs to exchange information, share files and use the same protocols. Java is often considered a highly interoperable programming language for software as it can run and execute on any program with a Java virtual machine (JVM).
  • Data management. Interoperability allows organizations to accurately collect information from multiple sources using only one query. This allows organizations to make more effective use of large amounts of data and supports data mining.
  • Government. Exchange of electronic data between multiple government organizations across the world can be difficult. Interoperability helps close the gap created by language barriers and varying format specifications to help public administrations collaborate.

Benefits of interoperability

Data exchange between applications, databases and IT systems is crucial for the growth of modern technology, such as IoT. Other specific benefits of maintaining reliable interoperability include the following:

  • Lower costs of maintenance associated with interoperable systems.
  • Increased access to critical information for all appropriate stakeholders.
  • Improved data quality through more sophisticated sourcing techniques.
  • Less time and resources needed to process and convert data.
This was last updated in December 2023

Continue Reading About interoperability

Dig Deeper on Enterprise application integration

Software Quality
Cloud Computing