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I know you’ve heard of tree huggers, but have you ever heard of server huggers?

I’ve heard this term used to describe businesspeople who refuse to sacrifice their departmental application or database to the (presumed) greater good of cross-company integration.

Maybe it’s because the application they are using does more than the one they are being asked to replace it with. Or perhaps they are worried that they will lose access to the data they’ve taken for granted until now. Or maybe they just live by the old “knowledge is power” maxim and don’t want to share.

Regardless of the motivation, data and application ownership are big issues when the goal is to integrate a smaller world into a larger one. The tragic failure of U.S. Intelligence agencies to integrate and share information prior to 9/11 is the most dramatic example.

But there are others—including one that we should nip in the bud before it becomes an issue: data sharing among the various entities that manage airplane Maintenance and Repair Operations (MRO).

Putting all the data together into one place could do a lot of things, as I’ve discussed in this post on Forbes and in a post recently on SCN. Flights could be more timely, more fuel efficient, and most importantly, safer. That’s worth weeding out the server huggers.

As our SAP airline industry experts, Wolfgang Ullwer, Sameer Deshpande, and Phil Te Hau told my colleague Stephanie Overby and me recently, the aircraft manufacturers originally positioned themselves as the ones to handle all the data because they could potentially look across a wider set of data than any individual airline. But air carriers—who maintain airplanes from several manufacturers—naturally prefer a single solution for their fleets.

Yet it’s important that we take a step back from both those possibilities and consider what would be best for flight crews and passengers—not just the companies involved. There’s a lot at stake here. Here are some of the issues that are emerging as the industry starts to work through the problem:

  • Malware threatens control systems. Some next-gen aircraft may have network vulnerabilities that would allow passengers to access control systems, according to the FAA. Airlines, software makers, and aircraft manufacturers are working on data filters and segregation (which have been deployed for military aircraft) in firewalls and physical separation of networks to isolate critical data and address the security concerns of transferring data from back-end systems back to the aircraft. But the issues are not solved yet.
  • Who pays for the data? The greatest benefits will be achieved if historical data on each aircraft model are collected not just across each airline but industry-wide. But the costs of gathering that data could be significant. Who pays for that? And who benefits? Ultimately, air carriers may be willing to pay for services based on the data. Boeing and Airbus, for example, both provide fleet-wide analysis of the data collected to airlines via the cloud. But who’s going to put all that data together? It’s an issue for governments and the industry to decide.
  • Current networks can't handle the data volume. Airlines today are very careful about what data they offload from on-board systems, extracting only the data necessary for manufacturers to address engine issues and structural health management services. That’s because the data being generated by the airplanes is already overwhelming. Ideally, all airport control systems would have wireless connectivity so that the airlines and MRO providers could set up private networks specifically for MRO data transmission. They don’t. The traditional Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) used to deliver information from plane to ground may not be able to handle the data volumes. While real-time broadband downloads would be ideal, air carriers and suppliers are testing cell phone connections and other workarounds for data transmission.

What do you think? How have you made data sharing happen among multiple organizations in your experience?